NOBBS, A VERSATILE MAN
Nobbs was also an accomplished painter and sculptor. In his youth, he took drawing and painting lessons from W.D. MacKay, Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA).22 He must also have been influenced by Phoebe Traquair (1952-1936), another member of the RSA. She was an accomplished artist of miniature paintings, book illuminations and embroideries and was praised by Ruskin for posessing the spirit of the 13th century. Phoebe Traquair was the mother of Nobbs' friend and colleague Ramsay Traquair, who would later succeed him as director of the school.
Nobbs painted a portrait entitled "Macdonald and Peterson on the McGill campus" for the Students' Union.* During World War I, Nobbs also painted several landscape views of the countryside in France, and later made several paintings depicting his own flower garden (Fig. 10, see p. 91).
Most of the plaster ornaments made by Nobbs for the Students' Union were destroyed after the building's conversion to the McCord Museum. But a few Zodiac signs and one stained glass window, were rescued by Professor John Bland. In the 70s, these ornaments adorned a corridor in the School of Architecture when it was in the McConnell Engineering Building. The beautiful stained glass window "Winter," depicting an old hooded person plodding through snow, still embellishes a window of one of the School's offices.
*Featured in Fontanus, Vol.VIII, 1995, page 76.
In addition to being an accomplished artist, Nobbs was also an athlete who won a silver Olympic medal in fencing (London, 1908). As an outdoorsman, he was very fond of fishing and an expert in making flies for both trout and salmon fishing. "In his youth a railway accident involving a circus enabled him to retrieve the long, white tail of a dead stallion, which kept him and two companions in hair for fishing flies for the rest of their lives."23 Salmon Tactics (1934) and Fencing Tactics (1936), two books authored by Nobbs, substantiate his expertise in these two fields.
Knowledgeable in heraldry, Nobbs was appointed to a committee with Dr. John G. Adami, chaired by Dean Charles E. Moyse, to prepare a design for a coat of arms for the University, since the previous arms were deemed faulty and inadequate. The committee's design was accepted and was registered in the Somerset College of Heralds, and is still in use (Fig. 11, see p. 92). The inclusion on the coat of arms of the book, which carries the founder's motto "IN DOMINO CONFIDO" indicates the possession of University powers. The two ancient French crowns refer to the origin of the site and to the Royal Charter of the University. The three points symbolize our three snow-clad mountains [Mount Royal, Outremont, and Westmount], the martlets being the reversal of the McGill family arms, in deference to our founder. The motto "GRANDESCUNT AUCTA LAHORE, " selected by Sir Wm. Dawson, is broadly interpreted as "Great things increase by dutiful labor."24
In an article for The McGill News (1940), Nobbs expressed his ideas about a new Canadian Flag. He wrote: "The symbolism requires careful thought. There is already a considerable body of opinion favouring a white field because, it is stated, the first French ships to come to the St. Lawrence flew a square, plain white flag. I am quite prepared to accept the white field for another reason. Snow is white and very beautiful and we have more of it than any other Dominion; indeed than all combined. General opinion also seems to favour the incorporation of a Union Jack somewhere. So long as there is a Northern Ireland, sending members to Westminster, the Union Jack, as we now know it, will stand. Should Northern Ireland, however, cease for any reason to send members to Westminster, it is to be presumed that St. Patrick's cross (the red saltire now divided with St. Andrew's cross, which is the white saltire) will drop out....Then there is also considerable unanimity as to the maple leaf (or leaves) finding a place in the Canadian flag.....As to the maple leaf, my view is very clear; one leaf only and that a red one....and after all, the most characteristic thing about Canadian maple leaves is that they can be so very red. These red leaves, fallen on an early snow, are associated with the finest gift of nature in this land - October days....The great national flags of the world are all strikingly simple. If we are to have a national flag let it have that artistic quality. "25 Nobbs' comments were prescient: the red maple leaf on a white field was adopted for the Canadian flag decades later.
22. Wagg, op. cit., pg.2.
23. Ibid., pg.74.
24. "The University Arms," McGill University, c. 1925.
25. Nobbs, P.E., "Canadian Flag Problems," The McGill News , Spring, 1940, pp. 14-16.