by Susan Wagg




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Biographical Details

Abbreviations and Notes

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By the late nineteenth century, when Nobbs received his training, the English were renowned for the informal comfort and beauty of houses and furnishings designed for the middle classes; so much so that the architect Hermann Muthesius, appointed to the German Embassy in London from 1896 to 1903, embarked on an ambitious project culminating in the publication in 1904 and 1905 of Das englische Haus. The English Domestic Revival, as it came to be called, developed principally from the moral fervour and artistry which Morris and Webb applied to the ordinary house and its interiors and to the enormously creative and widely popular work of their contemporary Shaw. Muthesius pointed out that the great achievement of the English domestic reformers, beginning in the 1860s, was to turn architects from their preoccupation with castles, palaces, and cathedrals as prototypes for respectable architecture to simpler country buildings, especially the farmhouses and village dwellings built by master-masons. The reformers found in this vernacular architecture not only great charm, but qualities eminently suitable for the smaller homes required by middle-class clients. Noted Muthesius: "They possessed everything that had been sought and desired: simplicity of feeling, structural suitability, natural forms instead of adaptations from the architecture of the past, rational and practical design, rooms of agreeable shape, colour and the harmonious effect that had in former times resulted spontaneously from an organic development based on local conditions."1

Robert Lorimer, Nobbs's teacher, went to London in 1890 to study the new approach at first hand, spending nearly a year in the office of George Frederick Bodley, one of the greatest later Victorian church architects and an important early patron of Morris's firm. In 1893 Lorimer set up his own office in Edinburgh and before the end of the decade had established himself "as an up-and-coming Arts and Crafts designer of cottages derived from the vernacular."2 He had also completed the first of his many superb restorations, that of Earlshall in Fife (Fig. 9) a ruinous Scottish tower house dating from the fifteenth century. Muthesius made a point of meeting Lorimer before returning to Germany and discussed his work in Das englische Haus, calling attention to his pioneering efforts in bringing English Arts and Crafts ideals to bear on Scottish architecture. Muthesius wrote:

He was the first to recognize the charm of unpretentious old Scottish buildings, with their honest plainness and simple, almost rugged massiveness. He saw no necessity for imitations of early Scottish styles, with pinnacles and towers and projecting bartizans; he had steeped himself in early art sufficiently to recognize and re-assess its more intimate charms. In short, Lorimer has begun to do in Scotland what Norman Shaw's group did in London thirty-five years ago. Lorimer's achievements in housebuilding in Scotland today are by far the most interesting of any that can bear comparison with the Mackintosh group.3

While Muthesius recognized the genius of Mackintosh and the unacceptability of his advanced art in conservative Britain, he predicted that Scotland would not achieve what England had already achieved until it followed Lorimer's lead. Although Lorimer stayed much closer to seventeenth- and eighteenth- century models than Mackintosh did, he nevertheless still differed from his English Arts and Crafts contemporaries whose work he found "too pretty."4 The austerity of old Scottish architecture was in his blood, flavouring his designs as it would those of his pupil Nobbs, who found a similar plainness in the old architecture of Quebec, where it was equally a response to a harsh environment.

Nobbs assessed the current situation as he found it in Canada in the June following his arrival:

It is extraordinary how little direct Scots and English influence there is in the architecture of Canada. Italian, French and specialized American growths are common, but the fact that in no country in the world have the private house and the parish church attained developments comparable with the perfections to be found in England and Scotland, is not reflected in the private houses or the parish churches on this side. . . . The domestic work and the smaller churches of England are pre-eminent among such things, and it is high time that more attention were bestowed upon them by those willing to learn from the "old fellows" what can be learned from no other source.5

The chance to begin this process in the domestic realm came while the Union was under construction - a house commissioned by another McGill professor, Charles W. Colby, who held the chair of history.6 Professor Colby's new house, which unfortunately no longer stands, was to be located at 560 Pine Avenue, a short walk from McGill. Nobbs's watercolour presentation perspective and the presentation floor plans and elevations in ink are dated 1905-6. The perspective (Fig. 8) was reproduced in the Canadian Architect and Builder in August 1906. For the project Nobbs formed a temporary association with the Montreal architect David R. Brown, an arrangement he had first broached to Principal Peterson of McGill in February 1904. Peterson, in a memorandum of an interview held with Nobbs in April, pointed out that the university had not brought him to Montreal at a salary of $2500 a year to put him into competition with the local architectural profession. Nobbs explained that "some immediate Canadian professional experience was more desirable for the success of my labours at McGill than either my travelling in France and Italy on the Owen Jones Studentship or my taking up my professional work in London for the summer."7 The matter simmered, finally coming to a head in 1909 when Nobbs offered his resignation to the board of governors. They chose to retain him as Professor of Design (at a reduced salary), and Ramsay Traquair assumed the Macdonald Chair in 1913.

David R. Brown, Nobbs's associate, had been born in Montreal in 1869, trained in Boston, and later worked under the Canadian, A. F. Dunlop, in Montreal. Although he formed a number of partnerships during his professional career, Brown, according to H. P. Illsley, a Montreal architect who knew him, was never the design man in any of these associations.8 This is borne out in the design of the Colby House. Brown's links at the time, because of his training, were largely American, whereas the Colby House stems directly from the British Arts and Crafts tradition. The symmetrical main elevation of three stories was crowned by a twin gable, a medieval motif much favoured by Arts and Crafts architects including Webb, Shaw, and the younger Lethaby and Lutyens (Fig. 10).9 The particular treatment here, however, probably derives most directly from Lorimer's vernacular-inspired dwellings in the Edinburgh suburb of Colinton dating from the nineties, which Nobbs would have known well during his apprenticeship. These small houses had "attracted a good deal of attention and admiration among the more artistic section of architects."10 The main façade of Pentland Cottage (1897) (Fig. 7) in Colinton, although a more complex composition than that of the Colby House, exhibits a similar treatment of the block to the right of the main entrance: the twin gable with the downspout decoratively marking the centre, the steep, close-fitting roof, and the tall chimney. For these Colinton houses, Lorimer had used the ancient Scottish tradition of harled (rough-cast) masonry, a practical, watertight method of construction which had fallen out of favour during the Victorian period.

Nobbs adapted Lorimer's simple, spare manner to Canadian conditions, drawing on one of the lapsed Montreal domestic traditions he admired: the plain red brick houses with green shutters and white window frames. In this choice of material Webb's influence, too, makes itself felt - brick being a beloved medium of his - while the Gothic flavour imparted by the gabled treatment and prominent oriel window above the recessed front door provides another echo of this seminal architect's Arts and Crafts work. The oriel, however, does more than furnish an evocative, ornamental note to this otherwise austere façade. It served the highly practical function of lighting the upstairs hall.

The Colby House was planned around the views, for it occupied a splendid site halfway up Montreal's Mount Royal with a sweeping outlook over the city below. The principal rooms were thus located at the rear of the house overlooking the city, while the kitchen, cloakroom, and secondary bedrooms occupied the front or street side. The servants' sitting room, the children's playroom, and Professor Colby's library also enjoyed the view.

Since the Colby House no longer exists, it is impossible to determine the decorative effect the brickwork would have given to Nobbs's restrained design. Like other Arts and Crafts architects who followed Webb's example, Nobbs took great pleasure in the special qualities of brick: its texture and warm colour, the geometrical patterns created by the bond. Fortunately, other examples of his exquisite brickwork still exist in the city, notably, the University Club on Mansfield Street, designed in 1912, which exhibits a beautiful Flemish bond, and Nobbs's own house on Belvedere Road in Westmount, designed in the following year. By that time the architect needed a larger home for a wife and two children, since in 1909 he had married Mary Cecilia Shepherd, daughter of McGill's Dean of Medicine. The Nobbs House (Fig. 11) displays a handsome English bond and with the exception of an ornamental carving above the front door displaying Nobbs's initial and the date 1914, there is no other decoration to detract from the beauty inherent in the superb handling of the brick. Nobbs possessed that same sensitivity to material that distinguished the work of such masters as Webb, Lorimer, and Lutyens - and an equally fanatical concern for craftsmanship.11 The owner of the architect's last house, a simple frame and shingle country cottage in Como, Quebec, recalls how Nobbs, enraged at the bricklayers' workmanship, sprang to the chimney scaffolding and tore down several feet of newly laid courses, flinging the bricks about the yard as he went along.12

In his own house Nobbs dispensed with the overt medieval reminiscences found in the Colby House: the oriel window, leaded casements, and twin gable. In contrast to the compact, rectangular form found in the earlier house, here, the asymmetrical massing of the exterior forms depends entirely on the internal organization, which is arranged to take full advantage of light, air, and the panoramic views afforded by the elevated site. The architect obviously loved these views, for he did a number of watercolours from various windows depicting the changing seasons.

The original interior of the Nobbs House, which can be seen from photographs, was decorated in the older, conservative Arts and Crafts fashion of Morris, Webb, and Lorimer, rather than in the more advanced, integrated manner of architects like Mackintosh and Voysey.13 The rooms served as backgrounds for both good antique furniture and simpler pieces designed by Nobbs himself (Fig. 12). A splendid mahogany china cabinet with his own and his wife's floral emblems forming part of the decorative carving is a particularly fine surviving example. The house contained Morris wallpaper and in the upstairs sitting room, the corner fireplace has hearth tiles by William de Morgan, the great Arts and Crafts potter who was associated with Morris. Charles Reilly, the English classicist and contemporary of Nobbs who directed the School of Architecture at Liverpool University from 1904 to 1929, visited the house in the twenties and recorded these impressions:

It was a tall, austere pile, standing prominently on the mountainside, and commanding a vast view of the town, the St. Lawrence, and the distant mountains. The big, bare rooms, with their polished hardwood floors and an occasional choice rug, contained a few very good pictures. His rooms were inhabited by his wife and children rather than by bronzes and statuettes. It was a house full of modern conveniences, efficient in service, yet fine in its shape, a notable if somewhat rare combination. Historically its ancestry could be traced back to the Scotch castle and the Teutonic schloss, and, of course, ultimately to Italy.14

Nobbs was called upon to design many houses during his long career, but one of the most outstanding is an early one, a country house (Pl. 1) built for Dr. John L. Todd in Senneville, Quebec, on the western tip of the island of Montreal. The site is an especially beautiful one, elevated several hundred yards above the shoreline with wonderful views out over the Lake of Two Mountains. The commission came in 1911, the year after Nobbs had formed a permanent partnership with the Montreal architect George Taylor Hyde (1877-1944). The association was an ideal one since Nobbs, although a gifted designer, had a notoriously short temper and needed a practical man to handle technical aspects and carry on the business side of the firm. Hyde had graduated with a B.Sc. in architectural engineering from McGill in 1899 and then continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, subsequently working as a draughtsman in various offices and, from 1902 to 1907, with contracting firms in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had returned to Montreal in 1907, where he practiced alone until 1910. Hyde, like Nobbs, was a perfectionist; and the care lavished on detail is apparent in all the firm built, whether private houses, academic structures, or office buildings.15 The Senneville house is a superb example of this concern for craftsmanship.

Dr. Todd, the client, was Professor of Parasitology at McGill and had been instrumental in discovering the parasites that cause sleeping sickness in man. Because of his work in Africa, he had been decorated in 1907 by the Belgian king Leopold II. Born in Victoria, B.C., Dr. Todd had married into one of Montreal's most prominent families. His wife was the only daughter of the banker Sir Edward Clouston, whose summer estate "Boisbriant" adjoined the land on which the young Todds intended to build. The young couple, however, did not want an imposing country house; and Mrs. Todd, in fact, argued with Nobbs over the size of the principal rooms. She did not wish to entertain on a grand scale as her parents did, preferring small groups of six or eight for dinner. Accordingly, she directed the architect, who was himself no lover of grandeur, to design the living and dining rooms on a more intimate scale than one would expect in a house of this size.16 Another distinctive feature is the several open-air rooms for dining and sleeping intended for summer use in this year-round, centrally-heated house. It should be recalled that another North American Arts and Crafts house, Greene and Greene's Gamble House in Pasadena, California, which dates from nearly the same time, 1908, is also notable for its open and covered terraces and sleeping porches. As a medical man, Dr. Todd no doubt subscribed to the current enthusiasm for sunlight and fresh air. Sleeping porches and open verandas, which the Todd House also has, were not, of course, characteristic of English architecture because of the cool, damp climate. They were, rather, colonial adaptations.

The tightly knit plan is extremely well thought out and, following an imaginative and sympathetic modernizing of the kitchen area, still efficiently serves the young family who are the present occupants. The rooms are arranged on either side of a longitudinal spine with the family rooms at the back looking west over the lake and distinguished by a more formal treatment of the façade and the kitchen and staff quarters placed along the east front facing the gardens and the Senneville Road. The only exception is the dining room, which is also on the east front near the kitchen. Even so, when Dr. Todd sat at the head of the table, he still caught a glimpse of the lake through the glass doors and a strategically placed window across the adjoining hall. This room also enjoys the morning sun, an amenity Nobbs tried to ensure whenever he could, since "sunshine in winter is so nice at breakfast time."17

The dining room (Fig. 14) is, in fact, the most beautiful room in the house. Oval in shape, it has glazed, panelled china cupboards and access doors set into the curve. The convex shape of the fireplace reverses that of the room, its simple, elegant reeding echoing the restrained mouldings that decorate the walls. The original furniture - Hepplewhite chairs with curvilinear, heart-shaped backs and oval dining and side tables - continued the theme of the room. While the detail here is exquisite, fine workmanship is evident in every part of the house, whether in sliding doors that still move with ease or an air-tight silver closet lined with green baize that continues to perform its task effectively.

In the exterior design of this house, which pre-dates his own, Nobbs achieved complete artistic independence, producing a new and original work superbly related to its site. So thoroughly did he assimilate his sources, stripping away all non-essentials including the imitative revivalism of the past, that he successfully attained that most sought-after goal of progressive Arts and Crafts architects: a house that is styleless in the historicist sense - at once modern and timeless. The form and generous size of the building masks the local origin of such features as the veranda and shuttered windows, which can be found in old Quebec houses of the French regime. The steeply pitched, hipped roofs; the expressive, soaring chimneys; the tapered, Voysey-like buttresses bracing the porte cochère; and, above all, the massing derive from the English Domestic Revival, while the oeil-de-boeuf window and dormers are typical of both traditions. Here, however, Nobbs chose some unusual polygonal dormers for their added light- and air-catching properties. All these various elements have been fused into a superior and thoroughly individual creation which is not in the least derivative.

The Todd House is constructed of a warm-toned limestone from local quarries, which ties it beautifully to its surroundings, a relationship that is intensified by carrying the stone out into the garden. The terrace is built of the same stone, as are the piers of the pergola overlooking the lake - pergolas being that favoured garden structure of the Edwardian era as ruins were of an earlier age. The masonry treatment is coursed rubble which, while recalling the old architecture of the province, is a more elegant handling suited to the size and status of the house. Nobbs had as strong opinions concerning stone as he had about brick, writing: "The most precious thing in the English tradition of our time is that material sensitiveness of which William Morris and Professor W. R. Lethaby have been exponents."18

For Nobbs the real essence of old country building was patination, "which is not directly of human contrivance at all, and texture which is nothing if not natural. Texture can be a very important element of effect in architecture, and only for brief periods has this been ignored, and to the peril of the art."19 Accordingly, in the Todd House Nobbs gives full play to the colour and texture of the stone, refraining from virtually all ornamental detailing. Ashlar weathering on the buttresses and the quoins around the entrance door provide a minimal amount of contrast, while the wedge shapes of the voussoirs of the porte cochère arches furnish another sort of variation. Nobbs advised that the handling of stone should always be moderate and gentle, for overdoing anything - jointing, size, tone and colour, or the ruggedness of the surface - spoiled the effect. Nobbs's stone-work is always superb, equal to the best Arts and Crafts work anywhere. In the Todd House, it is the sensuous quality of the masonry alone which provides so much of the aesthetic enjoyment.

The other contributing factor to the beauty of this house is the grey shingled roof.20 In English and Scottish houses, tile and slate were the common roofing materials, but in North America shingles were the norm and had, of course, been used brilliantly by H. H. Richardson. Nobbs chose a particularly elegant treatment for his roof, setting down detailed instructions as to how the shingles should be laid. He played with these shingles in a more whimsical manner in the picturesque outbuilding he designed for the garden, using them not only to cover the walls and sweeping roofs, but wrapping them around the sides of the structure's polygonal tower.

The ultimate feeling conveyed by the Todd House is one of continuity without historicism, together with a spareness that is appropriate both to the setting in a young and harsh environment and to the twentieth century. Despite its country house status, there is that same friendly unpretentiousness, both inside and out, that is so affecting in the work of Webb. The key to Nobbs's success, as to Webb's, is restraint combined with a craftsman's unstinting care for excellence. The Todd House was and is a warm and inviting family home, remembered with pleasure by the children who first lived there and loved equally by its present occupants. It is, in fact, a perfect embodiment of Morris's ideal of "an architecture built to give joy to those who use it, rather than to express status, or purely mechanical 'functionalism'-let alone for mere profit."21

Unlike the Todd House, another smaller country house designed by Nobbs in 1922 displays quite openly its historical sources. This was perhaps due in part to its erection on the foundations of an old French Canadian farmhouse; however, following World War I architectural taste turned back to a more conservative expression - in domestic work principally to a neo-Georgianism that supplanted the real advances that Nobbs in the Todd House and other Arts and Crafts architects elsewhere had achieved prior to the war. The A. H. Scott House (Fig. 13), commissioned by a fishing friend of Nobbs, is situated close to the St. Lawrence River in Dorval, Quebec, then a small village. A compact, rectangular, two-storied structure, the house was modelled on the old French farmhouses of the Montreal region as described at about this time by Nobbs's colleague Ramsay Traquair in "The Old Architecture of the Province of Quebec." Traquair pointed out that "the noticeable features are the great stone end gables with the double chimneys connected by a flat parapet, and the high stone copings supported at the wall head on moulded corbels."22 Typically, too, the upper floor of the Scott House is lit by a row of dormers let into the steeply pitched roof, while the front door is placed functionally off-centre. Nobbs taught that climate was a crucial factor in the evolution of architectural forms, and here he exploited a unique Quebec roofing adaptation: small tin shingles laid diagonally, which weathered to beautiful shades. The architect made his own adaptation by substituting a modern material, galvanized iron, in place of tin.23 Also, the house is mainly roughcast with stone reserved for the chimneys and detailing.

The predominantly French flavour which Nobbs imparted to the Scott House did not prevent him from acknowledging the current Georgian Revival, and a number of classical elements contribute to the building's distinctive character: the columned entrance porch, the heavy quoining at the corners, the pedimented dormers, and the decorative frieze that runs below the eaves line. The architect could, of course, justify such interpolations historically, for English classicism began to affect the indigenous work of Quebec following the Conquest.

Despite the importance in this house of style in the traditional sense, Nobbs by no means produced the kind of bland expression so typical of the twenties. The painted frieze, for example, adds enormously to the distinctive character of the exterior. In the presentation drawings the architect indicated that the metopes were to be decorated with aquatic creatures, no doubt referring to his client's predilection for fishing, but for some unknown reason the signs of the zodiac were substituted. Another particularly charming element is the sundial placed on a blank area of the upper west wall where it can be seen from the garden. Nobbs surely got this idea from one of the loveliest old buildings in the province, the Ursuline Convent in Three Rivers, which he not only knew well but sketched.24 Thanks to touches like this, the Scott House is one of the most personal and individualistic of any the architect designed, but to achieve these qualities he relied again on the traditional methods he had used in early works like the McGill Union, rather than on the more advanced means that distinguish the Todd House.

Nobbs and Hyde continued to build houses right up to the Depression, at which time requests for alterations replaced house commissions. Fortunately, nearly all the firm's domestic work still stands. The houses that the author has visited are to this day, like the ones described, extremely attractive, comfortable, gracious places in which to live - each one a testament to the extraordinary level of excellence that Arts and Crafts building could achieve wherever it took root.


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1. Muthesius, The English House, pp. 15-16.

2. Savage, Larimer, p. 19.

3. Muthesius, The English House, p. 62.

4. Savage, Larimer, p. 39.

5. Nobbs [The Gargoyle], "Montreal Letter," CAB 17 (June 1904), p. 91.

6. Unfortunately Nobbs never received a commission for an entire church, although he did carry out major interior work at the Church of St. James in Three Rivers and the Erskine and American United Church in Montreal.

7. Letter from Nobbs to Peterson, 16 Apr. 1904, Peterson Papers.

8. Interview with H.P. Illsley, Montreal, 20 Oct. 1980.

9. William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931), an architect, educator, and leading theorist of the Arts and Crafts movement, was the first principal of the London Central School of Arts and Crafts.

10. Savage, Larimer, p. 19.

11. Shaw, in contrast, could be remarkably insensitive.

12. Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Lome Gales, Como, Que., 1 Sept. 1981. The Gales House was designed in 1939.

13. Charles F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) produced a series of informal country houses which were widely imitated. He also designed wallpapers, textiles, and furniture.

14. Charles Reilly, "Some Impressions of Canadian Towns," JRAIC 1 (Apr.-June 1924), p. 55.

15. Information on Hyde was obtained from an obituary in the Montreal Star, 20 June 1944 in MUS 10, p. 536, and from his son Justice Miller Hyde. From discussions with former students and associates of Nobbs, including Montreal architects Harry Mayerovitch and A.L. Perry, it seems clear that Nobbs was the designing partner.

16. Interview with Mrs. J. Hackney and Mrs. J. Fialkowski, Senneville, Que., 3 Apr. 1981.

17. Nobbs, Design, p. 256.

18. Nobbs, "University Education in Architecture,"JRAIC 2 (May-June 1925), p. 108.

19. Nobbs, "Wall Textures," American Architect 124 (12 Sept. 1923), p. 244.

20. The watercolour presentation proposal in the CAC shows red shingles.

21. Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (New York: Quartet, 1977).

22. Ramsay Traquair, "The Old Architecture of the Province of Quebec," JRAIC 2 (Jan.-Feb. 1925), p. 26.

23. Nobbs, "Tradition and Progress in Canadian Architecture," The Studio 104 (Aug. 1932), p. 84.

24. Nobbs's watercolour sketch, In Notre Dame Street, Three Rivers, P.Q., is in the McCord Museum, Montreal.


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