This year, the McGill School of Architecture celebrates its centennial. It was in 1896 that Sir William Macdonald endowed a chair in Architecture enabling Sir William Peterson, McGill University's principal, to appoint a professor of Architecture. This effectively created a Department of Architecture within the Faculty of Applied Science, at that time headed by Dean Henry Taylor Bovey, a civil engineer. Stewart Henbest Capper (1859-1925) was selected to be the first Macdonald Professor of Architecture. He was recommended by Professor Gerard Baldwin Brown, a close friend of Peterson. Capper met all the requirements of the new position; he was a well-trained teacher, competent practising architect, and someone "who would have testimonials of the very highest character from the most distinguished authorities,"1 Capper, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh (like Peterson himself), laid the foundations of the School of Architecture and its architectural library.
Capper's tenure at McGill lasted only seven years: in 1903, he left McGill to establish another new School of Architecture, this time at Victoria University in Manchester. After his resignation Principal Peterson once again turned to Professor Brown for assistance in finding an accomplished man to fill the Macdonald Chair.
A graduate of Uppingham and Oriel College, Oxford, Gerard Baldwin Brown (1849-1932) occupied the Watson Gordon Chair of the Department of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh and lectured on both history and theory of fine arts. Since special lectures were offered in the 1880s by the Fine Art department to students who were pursuing architecture as a profession, Brown had first hand knowledge of young talented architects not only in his capacity as a teacher but also as a prominent figure in the intellectual and academic life of Edinburgh. Brown was acquainted with many Edinburgh architects of renown, such as George Washington Browne (1854-1939), James MacLaren (1843-1890), and Robert Stodart Lorimer (1864-1929), in whose offices young promising architects were apprenticing.
G. Baldwin Brown introduced the notion that since art was "a manifestation of the life and culture of its age," great importance must be "given to the connexion between art and its social background."2 This interpretation of art had a profound influence upon many of his students and contemporaries, including Percy Erskine Nobbs (1875-1964) (Fig. 1), whom he proposed to Peterson as a candidate to fill the Macdonald Chair.
1. Bland, John, "The Growth of the McGill University School of Architecture." Montreal: unpublished paper, School of Architecture, McGill University, 1971, p. 1.
2. Rice, D. Talbot, "Gerard Baldwin Brown," Dictionary of National Biography: 1931-40 (Ed. L.G. Wickham Legg). London: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 105.
3..Ibid., p. 105.