NOBBS: STUDENT AND APPRENTICE
Percy Nobbs was born at his mother's family house in Haddington, Scotland, but his early childhood was spent in St. Petersburg, then the capital of Russia, where his father worked in a bank. It was at the School of Design in St. Petersburg that he received his first training in art. At age 12 he returned to Scotland for his secondary schooling at the Edinburgh Collegiate School but continued to complement his formal education by attending classes in drawing, modelling and design, first, at Heriot Watt College, then, at the School of Art and, finally, at the New School of Applied Art.
Like his predecessor, S. Henbest Capper, Percy Nobbs enrolled at the University of Edinburgh and obtained a Master's degree in Arts. Before his graduation he travelled again to Russia as an artist-correspondent, attending the coronation of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Back in Scotland, in 1896, Nobbs was articled in the office of Robert Stodart Lorimer, who was a member of the Art Workers' Guild and a distinguished Scottish Arts and Crafts architect of the romantic traditionalist style.
Lorimer's devotion to Scottish architecture began in his youth when his father, Professor James Lorimer obtained a long lease of the 17th century Castle Kellie, Fife, a romantic but derelict house "with its mellow stone walls, turreted turnpike stairs and crow-stepped gables."4 He completed his apprenticeship with Sir Rowand Anderson RSA, who established the National Art Survey of Scotland to encourage the study of vernacular building, and opened his own office with the help of a commission to restore the 16th century tower house of Earlshall at Leuchars in Fife (1892), owned by R. W. Mackenzie, a friend of the family.5 Although Lorimer's work entailed other restorations, such as the Dunrobin Castle near Dornoch, Fife, and Lympne Castle, Kent; he also designed several modest cottages, some of these built in Colinton, a suburb of Edinburgh. Nobbs remained in Lorimer's office for four years.
After sucessfully passing the Royal Institute of British Architects' examinations, and winning the R.I.B.A. The prize (1900) for the design of a free-standing clocktower, Nobbs was elected an Associate of the Institute. Thereafter he travelled for several months in Europe spending considerable time in northern Italy with two friends and colleagues, Ramsay Traquair (1874-1952) and Cecil E. (Scott) Burgess (1870-1971). It was the beginning of a long association in architectural education that would culminate in later years at McGill University.
Returning from his travels in Europe, in 1901, Nobbs moved to London and worked for the London County Council (LCC), headed by William Edward Riley (1852-1937), an effective construction organizer. At the LCC Nobbs gained much practical experience in building operations and was also exposed to several architects who, like Lorimer, were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. Owen Fleming, appointed in 1893 to lead the team of LCC designers, was one of the Arts and Crafts architects much admired for his humane designs of inner city housing estates, such as the flats at Boundary Street (1895) and Millbank (1899), as well as for his low density cottage estates, including Totterdown Fields in Tooting (1903).6 After a while, Nobbs left the LCC to become chief assistant to A. Hessel Tiltman (1854-1910), a prominent London architect and a Fellow of the R.I.B.A.7 It was at this point, in 1903, that he was interviewed by Principal William Peterson, and despite his being only 28 years age Nobbs was offered the Macdonald Chair of architecture at McGill University.
4. Ottewill, David, The Edwardian Garden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 42.
5. Gray, A. Stuart, Edwardian Architecture: A Biographical Dictionary. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1988, p. 236.
6. Home Sweet Home: Housing designed by the London County Council and Greater London County Council, 1888-1975. London: Academy Editions, 1976, pp. 22-29.
7. "Recent Additions to the Staff," Old McGill, vol. 8. Montreal: McGill University, 1905, p. 27.