by Susan Wagg




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Biographical Details

Abbreviations and Notes

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When Percy Nobbs stepped ashore in Montreal on a bright September morning in 1903, he began immediately to observe the city's architectural character. The twenty-eight year old architect found a few really good buildings and a very few exceedingly beautiful ones, but the average structure fronting on Montreal's streets was, in his opinion, "neither good nor beautiful - rarely sensible." The latter included late Victorian developers' row houses distinguished by what Nobbs referred to as "enormities in wood work" and "crimes in zinc." Worse still were the multitude of stone-fronted detached houses with raw brick sides and backs. Further inspection revealed to him, however, that earlier builders had produced two excellent local traditions: one in quiet greystone-either quite plain or with a soupçon of French flavour, the other in brick with green shutters and white window frames. These sensible bygone traditions, he noted, were the kind "with which the architect must saturate himself if his work is to be indigenous at all."1

Nobbs's wish to make his work indigenous and his strong sense of urban context and beauty were the result both of his particular architectural training and his upbringing. Born at his mother's family home in Haddington, Scotland, on 11 August 1875, he spent most of his childhood surrounded by the neo-classical splendours of St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked for the St. Petersburg Commercial Joint Stock Bank.2 It was the magnificent scale of the buildings and the streets and the skillful layout of the Russian capital as a whole which he later recalled.3 At the age of twelve Nobbs returned to Scotland to enter the Edinburgh Collegiate School, residing in the Scottish city until he had completed his university education and architectural apprenticeship. In Edinburgh he was exposed to both classical planning and architecture and to authentic medieval structures, all existing in one of the most picturesque settings in the world. After receiving his M.A. in Arts from the University of Edinburgh in 1896, Nobbs articled with Robert Lorimer (1864-1929), who was to become his country's foremost architect in the first quarter of the twentieth century.4 A romantic traditionalist, Lorimer (later Sir Robert) is often referred to as the Scottish Lutyens.5 His work, mainly country houses, was a Scottish variation of the Arts and Crafts philosophy set forth by William Morris. Like Morris, whom he greatly admired, Lorimer believed that buildings should appear to grow naturally from their surroundings through the use of local materials, traditions, and craftsmanship. A development of the Gothic Revival, the Arts and Crafts movement represented, in essence, a humane protest against the devastating effects of nineteenth-century industrialism. It involved an attempt to purify and improve architecture and design by getting back to fundamentals based on the reasonable, time-tested methods of the old builders and craftsmen. This, it was hoped, would provide a basis for sound modern design; and indeed the more progressive Arts and Crafts architects did achieve a premodern functionalism that was in sympathy with its surroundings.6

Since the Arts and Crafts movement encouraged individuality, it encompassed a wide variety of approaches and viewpoints. Lorimer and Nobbs both shunned the eccentric and amateurish wings of the movement - the "arty and crafty ones."7 An approach which consisted of teaching what things are made of and how they are made (Morris's cardinal principle) was, as Nobbs later wrote in a Canadian journal, "the only one of any use in the business of making young men into possible architects - especially so in a country that is new, as countries go; and in an age of perfervid technical inventiveness."8 Nobbs's own training in architecture and the applied arts under Lorimer was supplemented by classes at the Edinburgh School of Art, Rowand Anderson's School of Applied Art, and Heriot Watt College, where technical subjects were taught. He also developed considerable facility with brush and pen, studying under the landscape painter, W. D. McKay, secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy.9

In 1900, the year in which he completed his apprenticeship, Nobbs passed his examination for associate membership in the Royal Institute of British Architects (R.I.B.A.) and won the Institute's Tite Prize for a design for an isolated clock tower (Fig. 2), a work in the then highly fashionable neo-Baroque mode. In the fall of the same year, he embarked on a six-month trip to the Continent, the Tite Prize enabling him to study the architecture and decoration of northern Italy. Together with another young Edinburgh architect, Ramsay Traquair, who was to succeed him as Macdonald Professor of Architecture at McGill, Nobbs visited Milan, Verona, Venice, Ravenna, and Florence - an itinerary made almost obligatory by the publications of John Ruskin and G. E. Street.10 Watercolour sketches of Italian marble and mosaic work from this trip helped him to win a second major prize awarded by the R.I.B.A.: the 1902 Owen Jones Studentship for a scheme for the mosaic decoration of a church.11

In 1901, following his return from Europe, Nobbs moved to London to take advantage of the greater opportunities available in the capital city. He first joined the London County Council (L.C.C.) Architect's Department, where some of the most progressive designing of the period was being done.12 The L.C.C. was at the centre of the numerous urban improvement schemes that were carried out in the metropolis during the Edwardian era. Interestingly, the two major architectural philosophies current in England managed to find expression under the Council's auspices: grand Beaux-Arts-inspired planning and architecture aimed at transforming London into an imperial capital rivalling Napoleon Ill's Paris and a very different body of socialist-inspired work directed at improving life for the city's poor. The latter includes some of the most compassionate building of the Industrial Age. Two outstanding examples were completed while Nobbs was in London: the famous Milbank Estate (1897-1902), a working class housing estate, and the Euston Road Fire Station (1901-2). Both were designed to exhibit modest domestic qualities as a means of humanizing urban neighbourhoods.

Nobbs worked for the L.C.C. Fire Brigade Branch, which had just come under the leadership of Owen Fleming and Charles Winmill, two Arts and Crafts idealists who had previously inspired the Housing Branch with their enthusiasm for the architecture of Philip Webb, Morris's close friend and associate. Nobbs records only that he had the L.C.C. headquarters in Spring Gardens (near Trafalgar Square) to look after, where he "carried out a lot of complicated alteration work and quantities of fittings."13 Nevertheless, his subsequent work in Canada reflected this experience: notably the Webb-like lack of pretentiousness which characterized his architecture and his life-long concern for low-cost housing, slum clearance, and city and regional planning.

Following his employment with the L. C. C., Nobbs served as chief assistant to A. Hessell Tiltman (1854-1910), a successful London architect who specialized in civic commissions. Tiltman had a large and busy office, dependent on the winning of competitions, and Nobbs found the pace too fast. He thereupon worked as a competition draughtsman for various offices, including those of John Belcher, one of the masters of Edwardian neo-Baroque, and Walter Tapper, the latter a close friend of Lorimer.14 Nobbs worked on Tapper's Liverpool Cathedral competition design. At Lorimer's urging, however, he agreed to give up this type of employment and in the future to draw for no one but himself.15 On 10 June 1903, upon the recommendation of Gerald Baldwin Brown, Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, he met with Principal William Peterson of McGill, who was on his annual visit to Europe.16 Peterson offered Nobbs the Macdonald Chair of Architecture. On his acceptance, Nobbs became the second man to head a department which, having been established in 1896, was one of the pioneers in the university education of architects.


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1. Nobbs [Gargoyle], "Montreal Letter," CAB 17 (Apr. 1904), p. 73. Pseudonymous articles are attributions by the author based on stylistic and contextual evidence.

2. Nobbs noted in an unpublished MS "Those Russians," now in the CAC, that his paternal forebears had established themselves in Russia shortly after Waterloo.

3. Nobbs, "The Official Architecture of European Capitals," CAB 19 (Mar. 1906), p. 39.

4. The most recent comprehensive study of Lorimer is Peter Savage, Lorimer and the Edinburgh Craft Designers (Edinburgh: Paul Harris, 1980).

5. Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was England's greatest architect during the first half of the twentieth century, noted above all for his country houses.

6. Morris was, of course, building on the work of two important forerunners, A. W.N. Pugin (1812-52) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose influential writings focused on the relationship between architecture and society. For accounts of the Arts and Crafts movement, see Peter Davey, Architecture of the Arts and Crafts Movement (New York: Rizzoli, 1980); Hermann Muthesius, The English House, trans. Janet Seligman (New York: Rizzoli, 1979); and Gillian Naylor, The Arts and Crafts Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1971).

7. Nobbs, "Ramsay Traquair, Hon. M.A. (McGill) F.R.I.B.A. On His Retirement from the Macdonald Chair in Architecture at McGill University," JRAIC 16 (June 1939), p. 147.

8. Ibid.

9. RIBA Library, Recommendations... of Associates, 1900, no. 105; RIBA Library, Recommendations... of Fellows, 1909, no. 1430; and CAB 16 (Oct. 1903), p. 159.

10. Ruskin's The Stones of Venice (1851-53) and Street's Brick and Marble Architecture of the Middle Ages: Notes of a Tour in the North of Italy (1855) stimulated interest in North Italian Gothic architecture and in the use of architectural colour.

11. Nobbs discussed this trip in "Why Go We to Italy," The Builders Journal and Architectural Record, no. 320 (Mar. 1901), p. 130.

12. Two excellent accounts of the L.C.C. Architect's Department around 1900 are Susan Beattie, A Revolution in London Housing (London: Greater London Council in association with The Architectural Press, 1980) and Andrew Saint, Richard Norman Shaw (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

13. Letter from Nobbs to Peterson, 24 Nov. 1903, Peterson Papers. A competition for the present County Hall, Lambeth, was held in 1907.

14. C.H. Reilly records that Nobbs worked in Belcher's office in Representative British Architects of the Present Day (1931; rpt. Freeport, N.Y: Books for Libraries Press, 1967), p. 30. Nobbs mentions his association with Tiltman and Tapper in "Competition Reform,"JRAIC 12 (Sept. 1935), p. 150.

15. Nobbs, "Competition Reform," p. 150.

16. John Bland, "The Architect of the First Osler Library: Percy Erskine Nobbs," Osler Library Newsletter (June 1973), n.p.


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