6 A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
"The practice of Architecture has many sides," Nobbs wrote, "and success in this most exacting of avocations is of necessity dependent on something like an amalgam of talents."1 The amalgam of talents that he personally enjoyed were many and varied, ranging from skill in painting and the applied arts to exceptional ability in several athletic pursuits, in particular, fencing and salmon fishing. One of Nobbs's students, the Montreal architect and planner Harry Mayerovitch, recalls that the most important lesson he learned from Nobbs was that architecture is only one facet of life, a precept that guided his teacher throughout a long and uncommonly active life.2 Nobbs was convinced that specialization was one of the vices of modern times.
His enthusiasm for and expertise in the various arts and crafts related to architecture was, of course, an extension of the nineteenth-century reformers' efforts to create a world fit to live in, where people, instead of being slaves to machines, might once again find happiness in the exercise of their creative skills. These Victorian reformers - Pugin, Ruskin, Morris - had seen the uncontrolled advance of technology as a threat to human spiritual and physical well-being, yet Morris's involvement with the old handicrafts was not simply a form of cultural escapism, but an honest attempt to improve the quality of contemporary design and hence the everyday environment through a thorough understanding of materials and processes. Morris did succeed in improving the allied arts, albeit expensively; and many of his ideals ultimately found their way into the Machine Age he so feared. Nobbs, unlike such predecessors as Ruskin and Morris, did not hate modern civilization; but he was older than the pioneers Gropius and Le Corbusier, and because of his training, his sympathies lay with the old ways and materials. His particular applied-art interests included decorative plasterwork and ironwork, stained glass (Pl. IV), architectural sculpture, and cabinetry. He could also tailor a suit of clothes and even designed the bridesmaids' dresses for his wedding - charming, high-waisted frocks with mobcaps in the style of Kate Greenaway.
For most of his working life, the traditional craft methods were still feasible; and Nobbs continually sought ways of adapting the old to the new, believing that in this area, as in architecture and planning, the past had much to teach the present. A good example are his ideas concerning plaster decoration.
Plaster decoration was beloved by many Arts and Crafts architects; the reason is made clear in a comment by Ernest Prior quoted by Nobbs: "'Plaster is the most impressionable of all materials which give architectural surface. Its response to the hand of the craftsman is sympathetic and immediate. It has not to be chiselled like stone or wood or have ideas hammered out of it like iron: a touch of the finger gives it life.'"3 Lorimer produced many splendid plaster ceilings during his career, some of them quite elaborate and requiring a high degree of skill. In Canada, skilled labour was scarce and increasingly expensive, although commercial cast plaster decoration was readily available. Regarding the latter, Nobbs remarked that it was nicer "not to have the stereotyped ornament we know exists in the shop around the corner and in the house where we dined last night, right in our own parlor." Quantities of these cast plaster details also produced "dreary monotony." Having followed Lorimer's lead and, as a student, carefully studied and drawn old plasterwork in England and Scotland, Nobbs was able to propose a method that he felt was not only appropriate to Canadian conditions but would improve the quality of Canadian plasterwork generally. He advocated the revival of a method used in the latter half of the sixteenth century in Britain which combined cast and hand modelled work. Simpler elements such as stems, wreaths, and ribbons were done by hand in place, a skill that required little modelling ability and could be taught easily to an intelligent workman. Leaves, fruits, flowers, and heraldic devices - the more complex items - could be modelled in clay and cast beforehand in the necessary quantities and attached. The method was convenient and economical (for the time); and, also important, it engaged the plasterer's creativity. Flexibility was another important asset. Nobbs noted that "any degree of conventionality or naturalism can be obtained which is desired and also any degree of richness or simplicity. The decorations are designed 'in situ', an advantage quite as important as their being so executed."
Nobbs personally preferred a restful simplicity, writing that "nothing on a ceiling should assert itself at the expense of objects on the walls or the furniture, but a ceiling need not on that account be wholly dull and lifeless." Because plaster is an opaque material and gains much of its expressive beauty from the play of light and shadow on its surfaces, Nobbs advised against the use of colour, preferring lime white. "To paint a cornice chocolate and pick out enrichments in gold is at once to stultify the purpose of the plaster and ruin all the beauty of texture with which it is naturally so highly endowed - Where are the lights and shadows fled?" Here he was simply putting into practice Morris's rule of understanding and working with, rather than against, the natural properties of materials.
Nobbs used plaster decoration to give character and dignity to special rooms: for example, the student lounge and the great hall in the Union, the dean's office and faculty room in the Macdonald Engineering Building, and the faculty room (senate chamber) (Fig. 24) in the Arts Building at the University of Alberta. The latter is one of Nobbs's most beautiful - and sumptuous - exhibitions of plaster decoration. Oval in shape like the dining room of the earlier Todd House, it is a high, spacious chamber with a great, circular garland decorating the ceiling. Ornamenting the walls are shallow niches containing life-size baskets filled with flowers - each basket subtly differentiated from the others. The Arts Building was completed while Nobbs was engaged in organizing physical training and bayonet fighting instruction for Canadian soldiers during World War I. Nevertheless, the architect wrote to Dr. Tory in October of 1915 from Valcartier Camp in Quebec urging him to delay furnishing the faculty room and the president's office. "I would very much like to design stuff for these two rooms as they are not very ordinary sorts of places."4 Fortunately, Dr. Tory did wait, and the faculty room is surely one of the finest interiors of its period anywhere in Canada.
Nobbs did not confine ornamental plasterwork to domestic and academic commissions. His New Birks Building, designed in 1911 for the expanding Montreal firm of jewellers, contained some particularly attractive plaster decorations in the entrance hall (Fig. 26). The applied arts were used by Nobbs to enhance modern office structures for the same reasons as in other works - to impart beauty and individuality - to a building type which was becoming increasingly standardized. Another, slightly later Birks commission, a remodelling of a former Y.M.C.A. building on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, contains a frieze in colourful terra-cotta inlay with six terra-cotta medallions below. The medallions depict the sources of the precious and semi-precious materials used in the jeweller's art, while the frieze, a collaboration of Nobbs and Ramsay Traquair, concerns the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a splendid occasion involving the gift of a necklace of pearls.
Terra cotta was also used to enliven the main façade of the Drummond Medical Building (Fig. 27) on Drummond Street in Montreal, a brick structure that when new was a golden buff shade. Designed in 1929, the building was a Birks investment venture with shops at street level and suites of medical offices on the floors above. Accordingly, Nobbs devised a design for the window breasts in blue and old gold terra cotta which incorporated the medical cross symbol. By 1929 semi-modern tendencies including Art Deco had begun to appear in the city, and although the Drummond Medical Building represents an awareness of new trends and marks an advance over the base-shaft-cornice arrangement of the New Birks Building, Nobbs did not find completely abstract ornament sufficiently articulate to suit his purposes. Even so, the north façade, with its slim central shaft of windows, is a supremely elegant example of streamline composition.
The Drummond Medical Building still retains its handsome iron canopy covering the main entrance - ironwork being another of Nobbs's favourite decorative media. Although he did not initiate the revival of the metal crafts in Canada that took place around the turn of the century, as a leading designer and teacher, Nobbs was an important contributor; and he pointed to the importance of the Arts and Crafts movement generally in stimulating this revival. In his opening lecture to the Department of Architecture at McGill, he used metalwork to illustrate the Arts and Crafts view of the importance of material and technical process in creation of good design. "A clumsy, thickset heaviness is right and proper and beautiful in cast iron," he pointed out, "while a lacelike slimness is equally characteristic of the material and technique of wrought iron."5 Elsewhere he noted that his own approach differed slightly from the traditional one of designing and executing one's own work. "There is a case for the architect who is supposed to be more or less a master of every trade, exercising a certain rigorous influence, let us call it, on such metal or other craft work as finds its way into the buildings he designs."6 Since he loved wrought iron, Nobbs incorporated it into all types of commissions beginning with his first, the McGill Union. Here, in the interior, were some elegant wrought-iron stair balustrades, which were sadly lost when the building was renovated to house the McCord Museum.
Stylized, though still naturalistic, forms were Nobbs's preference - a typically Morris approach - and plants and flowers of various kinds provide the bulk of the architect's motifs. One of the most stunning of his designs is a pair of wrought-iron gates (Fig. 29) at the entrance to a driveway on Sunnyside Avenue in Westmount. Finials in the form of tulip blossoms top the balusters, each representing a different stage in the growth cycle from bud to maturity.
Nobbs employed some of the finest local craftsmen of his day to execute his designs, two of his favourite collaborators being Herman Sontheim, a native of Bavaria, and Jack Hedges, an Englishman who had settled in Montreal. Nobbs noted that these two, like the better-known metal craftsman and designer Paul Beau, added modern acetylene gas welding to the old wrought-iron techniques of welding and collaring and pinning. The works that Sontheim is known to have executed for Nobbs include the gateway mentioned above, dating from the early twenties; a rood screen and fittings for the Church of St. James in Three Rivers, Quebec, which Nobbs and Hyde were called on to renovate in 1916, work that continued on into the twenties; and decorative ironwork for the Liverpool and London and Globe Company Building (1914-15), which formerly stood on the corner of Dorchester Street and Union Avenue. Jack Hedges was responsible for various ironwork including the organ screen and chapel door for the Erskine and American United Church on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal, where Nobbs and Hyde carried out a major interior remodelling in 1938.7
Finally, a major creative outlet for Nobbs was painting in watercolours. The architect was an accomplished draughtsman and executed the presentation proposals for his firm, including handsome watercolour perspectives of major commissions and often coloured elevations as well. As a young architect working in London, he received praise from the Builder for the quality of the drawings he submitted to the annual competitions of the R.I.B.A., especially those in colour.8 A number of his early drawings were reproduced in the Architectural Association Sketchbook and the British Architect between 1901 and 1904.9
Throughout his life Nobbs painted - the illuminations of the Kremlin in Moscow celebrating the coronation of the Emperor Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra (which Nobbs attended in the guise of a press artist, resulting in his being awarded the Cross of St. Andrew); the Matane River where he fished for salmon; the garden (Pl. II) of his house on Belvedere Road; and his wife's garden at the Shepherd's delightful summer home in Como, Quebec. During the First World War, while serving in France, Nobbs painted a number of views of the countryside. Interestingly, none show scenes of devastation; rather, they depict untouched buildings and landscapes and perhaps served as a means of escape and release for the architect. Much as he enjoyed painting, Nobbs once remarked that it was not the process of painting that interested him, but the reality of nature that he loved and wished to record. The anonymous writer of Nobbs's obituary in The Journal, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada noted that
. . . exceedingly few men have ever seen the world around them with a more extraordinary sight or a greater capacity to retain the image of what they saw. Percy Nobbs could draw vividly and accurately from memory and when one expressed surprise at his uncanny ability, he would generally remark that one has not really seen something unless one can draw it. Seeing and comprehending were the same thing for him. His eyes and mind were like a sharply focussed camera equipped with sensitive film. Everyone who knew him will remember how he squinted and screwed his face when he looked at something that interested him. He could see colours beyond the spectrum normally imperceptible to human sight and he could judge distance with the accuracy of a good range finder.10
If reality triggered Nobbs's painting, it was also an element that figured strongly in his favourite athletic pursuits: salmon fishing, moose hunting, and fencing - perhaps relating to the fact that architecture is an art in which the demands of reality must constantly be met. In the first two sports both the prey and its environment present challenges, while the latter originated as a form of deadly combat. Nobbs liked adversary sports in particular, undoubtedly because they served as escape valves for his temper, but also because, influenced by the popular idea of the survival of the fittest, he enjoyed testing his wits and skill. He took up fencing in Florence in 1900 because there was no boxing to be found; in 1908, having won the first Canadian Fencing Championship ever held, he was permitted to accompany the Canadian contingent to the London Olympics as a lone fencer and at his own expense. He was awarded a silver medal for an international foils display, one of the first medals won for Canada after the revival of the games.
Nobbs loved fencing for the beauty and precision of the movements, the high degree of skill required, and the incredible intensity of the game. "In all its aspects," he wrote, "as mere exercise, recreation, applied mechanics, gymnastic for the mind, and school of manners, as a training in co-ordination of action, self-control, deception, strategy and sportsmanship, this science, art and sport is too good a thing to drop from our civilization, even if we do not duel."11 Nobbs was still fencing at eighty.
The architect's skill with pointed weaponry included the bayonet, an interest he had first acquired as a small boy enthralled by the bayonet fighting drill at the St. Petersburg garrison. He went to England when the Great War broke out to join the Northumberland Fusiliers, but relates that a bad eye caused him to be sent back to Canada where he took charge of the bayonet fighting and physical training program at Valcartier Camp in Quebec, subsequently organizing similar military training all over Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia.12 Eventually Nobbs managed to get himself posted back to Europe as a camouflage expert with the Royal Engineers of the Imperial Forces in France. Here he created "two of the finest bits of camouflage work at the front [which concealed] Canadian Corps headquarters in what was practically No Man's Land during the open fighting."13 He attained the rank of major during his war service.
The quickness and alertness demanded by bayonet fighting and fencing also made Nobbs an expert fisherman. "He could make a fly and cast it to outwit the most wary salmon."14 Indeed the architect was fascinated by ladies' hats because of the possibilities the brightly coloured trim suggested for new salmon flies. 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.15
As with most things he cared for deeply, Nobbs wrote about salmon fishing and fencing, ultimately publishing Salmon Tactics in 1934 and Fencing Tactics in 1936. His book Design, in which he discussed his theories concerning architecture, was also published in the thirties (1937), a decade when commissions were few because of the Depression; and many architects had time for other pursuits.
Salmon Tactics was written with a very specific purpose in mind - to promote interest and thus encourage the management and protection of salmon fishing in the Atlantic provinces. When Nobbs began fishing in Canada, many of the great salmon rivers were rapidly being destroyed by hydro-electric dams and pollution and by careless poaching. With the same effort and thoroughness that he had directed toward urban planning, Nobbs outlined what needed to be done to ensure the continued survival of one of the greatest of all game fish and a national asset. Finally in 1948 he personally founded the Atlantic Salmon Association, an organization that still exists, to campaign for fish passes around dams and other conservation measures. In 1952, at the age of seventy-seven, he earned the Outdoor Life Conservation Award as the man who had contributed most to the conservation of wildlife in that year.
Just as Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris had considered architecture and the allied arts not in isolation from society, but as they affected and were affected by mankind, so Nobbs viewed both the built and the natural environment. His basic concern was for the earth and all its inhabitants, for he recognized that they are all interdependent, one upon the other.
1. Nobbs, "University Education in Architecture," JRAIC 2 (Mar.-Apr. 1925), p. 70.
2. Interview with Harry Mayerovitch, Montreal, 6 Sept. 1978. Mayerovitch, himself, is also a painter, poet, and photographer.
3. This and the quotations immediately following on plasterwork are from Nobbs, "Plaster Decoration-Modelled and Handwrought," CAB 17 (Jan. 1904), pp. 4-6.
4. Letter from Nobbs to Tory, 1 Oct. 1915, Tory Papers.
5. Nobbs, "Opening Lecture of the Department of Architecture, McGill University," CAB 17 (Oct. 1904), p. 155.
6. Nobbs, "Metal Crafts in Canada," Canadian Geographical Journal 28 (May 1944), p. 213.
7. Ibid. pp. 215-17.
8. The Builder 85 (15 Aug. 1903), p. 177.
9. The Architectural Association Sketch Book, 3rd Series, 5-8 (1901-4); The British Architect (20 March 1903).
10. JRAIC 42 (Jan. 1965), p. 13.
11. Nobbs, "Praise of Fencing, "The McGill University Magazine 4 (May 1905), p. 239.
12. Nobbs, "Antagonistics-Bayonet Training" (Unpublished MS in possession of Francis J. Nobbs), p. 15.
13. MUS 4, p. 147 (Montreal Gazette, 20 Jan. 1919).
14. JRAIC 42 (Jan. 1965), p. 13.
15. Nobbs, "Tyne, Tweed and Clyde," (Unpublished MS in possession of Francis J. Nobbs), p. 6.