by House Guide, Karen Tiley.
I am intrigued by the two anonymous still life pictures in Mr Parr’s Drawing Room. They look old enough to be from Parr’s time, but we don’t know if he painted them himself.
When my husband and I bought a similar painting, it turned out that our painter was very much part of David Parr’s world…
This study of a bunch of grapes was signed and dated 1885. I discovered that the artist, George Crisp, had been born in 1828 in Cambridge. His father, also George (who I will call George Crisp senior), was a “fruiterer”, so you can see why Crisp became a painter of fruit and veg! The family lived above the shop at 16 King’s Parade, Cambridge. G. Crisp senior is listed in Kelly’s Directory, 1858, at that address and the business described as “Fruiterers and Greengrocers”.
In 1860, the younger George Crisp married and seems to have gone to live in Sudbury, Suffolk. According to the 1861 Census, he was a “Railway Clerk”. I came across a piece in Punch magazine satirising this occupation:
The RAILWAY CLERK dresses smartly. He is a friend of a Director, or the cousin of a large Shareholder…and he runs his diamond fingers through his rich, Macassared hair.
…He yawns all the morning – his eyes only half open at eight o’clock, and his white waistcoat betrays his dreadful impatience to get to the Opera.
Not exactly a flattering portrayal, but it’s a reminder that railway clerks had some degree of social status: or at least liked to act as if they did. Whether George Crisp was anything like this comical stereotype we can only imagine!
George Crisp and family later moved to Bury St Edmunds, but by 1881, his life seems to have undergone a change. According to the Census that year, the family are back in Cambridge, and George Crisp’s occupation is described as “Artist and Graduate (B.A.)”.
I was surprised to see that Mr Crisp had a degree. Cambridge University alumni records confirm that he had graduated back in 1854. He entered Peterhouse in 1848, at around 20 years of age, as a fee-paying student and is recorded as son of George Crisp “tradesman”.
It must have been a considerable achievement for a local greengrocer to put his son through university at that time, but life for the family was not always so fortunate. Tragedy struck in the late 1860’s. Newspaper reports describe how George Crisp senior had taken his own life. The Cambridge Independent Press reported on the 4th December 1869, how “Mr. George Crisp, fruiterer, whose health had for some time been in a precarious state” jumped from the second floor window of their house in King’s Parade. It was his second suicide attempt. Not long before he had tried to cut his own throat.
The family business seems to have been continued by George Crisp senior’s widow until perhaps the early 1880’s. At this point, under the name of A.W. Crisp (Angus was George Crisp’s second son), they moved away from fruit-selling to painting decorative heraldic items for various institutions and organisations. The business advertised itself as:
Ecclesiastical, Civil, Private and School Arms. Naval Regimental and Air Force Badges to order Handpainted on Oak Shields, Panels and Parchment, also silver and E.P. Souvenir Spoons, Brooches, Loving Cups and Serviette Rings, etc., with coloured enamel Arms.
The Cambridge Daily News, 20th June 1899 also mentions Crisp’s in coverage of a degree ceremony:
The woodden [sic] spoon was supplied, as usual, by Messrs A.W. Crisp & Co. of 16 King’s Parade. It was beautifully painted, with the arms of Trinity College, and a wreath of laurels, and was trimmed with blue ribbon, the college colour.
I can’t help but feel that Frederick Leach (David Parr’s employer), also with premises in King’s Parade, would have had some contact with the Crisps. Both businesses worked for the colleges and both employed craftsmen. By the 1910’s, Crisp’s had branched out into picture framing, and indeed, on the back of our painting is a label reading, “A.W. Crisp & Co., Photographers and Heraldic Painters, 16 King’s Parade, Cambridge.”
It seems entirely possible that David Parr knew the Crisps, or had at least seen George Crisp’s work. Baskets and flowers often appear alongside fruit in Crisp’s paintings, just as they do in the pair of pictures in David Parr’s drawing room.
George Crisp died in 1914. His final appearance on the Census records is in 1911, where he is recorded as “George Crisp B.A./Retired Railway Clerk”. I have never found an obituary for him, but a report of the annual prizegiving at the Cambridge School of Arts offered its respects:
Dr Stokes referred to the recent death of Mr Crisp, the distinguished artist, who was closely connected with Cambridge. (Cambridge Independent Press, 27th February 1914).
British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
Kelly’s Directory, 1858, 1883, 1904.
Alumni Cantabrigienses, Venn Collection, Cambridge University Library (venn.lib.cam.ac.uk)
Census returns, via various family history websites: The Genealogist/Ancestry/Find My Past.