biographic details
notes biographiques

obituary [126kb PDF]

drawings and notebooks



by John Bland [1911-2002]

Percy Erskine Nobbs was born 11 August 1875 in his mother's family home at Haddington, Scotland. He spent his childhood in Russia, one of the third generation of an English family resident in St. Petersburg since shortly after Waterloo and highly respected there.1 In this way he received his first artistic instruction at the School of Design, St. Petersburg. At twelve he was enrolled in the Edinburgh Collegiate School and from there, in 1893, proceeded to Edinburgh University where, under the direction of Professor Gerald Baldwin Brown, he obtained the MA in 1896.2 Desiring to be trained as an architect, he became a pupil of Robert Lorimer, the gifted Scottish architect who by nature and training was a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement. Lorimer had been a pupil of Rowand Anderson in Edinburgh, but before beginning his practice he spent eighteen months in London with George Frederick Bodley, where he was in close touch with William Morris and Philip Webb.3 Lorimer was Nobbs's ideal as can be seen in both architects' delight in the right use of materials, in traditional forms, in heraldry, and in other meaningful ornament, but above all in their appreciation for the art of craftsmen who contribute so greatly to the quality of buildings.

While Nobbs was at school and at university in Edinburgh, he attended classes in drawing and technical subjects at Heriot Watt College and the School of Applied Art.4 There are items in the CAC that pertain to this time - measured drawings of ancient buildings, decorative iron work, and sketches of objects in the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art.5 In addition there is a photograph in the Nobbs Archive of an heraldic lion carved in stone from the gateway to Balcarres, a Lorimer house built when Nobbs was in the office, bearing the initials PEN.

Nobbs passed the Royal Institute of British Architects' examinations in 1900 and in the same year won the Tite Prize for the design of an isolated clock tower, a traditional composition in which no detail of construction was omitted.6 The Tite Prize was spent in Italy sketching, measuring, and drawing. The expedition is recorded in an essay entitled "Why go we to Italy" published with fifteen illustrations in the Builders Journal and Architectural Record in 1901.7 Six items from this experience are in the CAC, while other drawings and sketches from the trip appeared in several journals in the following years.8

In 1901 Nobbs was employed in the Fire Brigade Branch of the London County Council, where he had the opportunity of seeing a social dimension of architecture - the mass accommodation problems of a great city. This concern remained with him throughout his professional life, evidenced by reports and outline schemes for public housing and planning and particularly by the neat, economical school buildings he designed in Montreal before the First World .War. In 1901 Nobbs submitted designs for the Soane Medallion and the Owen Jones Studentship, obtaining second prize in the latter. In the following year he tried for both again and this time won the Owen Jones Studentship for the design of a richly ornamented Romanesque church. However, the Soane Medallion once again eluded him. The Soane competition in 1902 was for the design of a city church, and although only one of Nobbs's drawings for it is in the CAC, others were published in the British Architect, so that this proposal, too, can be fully examined.9

Nobbs's exceptional ability to draw, which so evidently contributed to his success in winning prizes and having his drawings published, made him a desirable assistant in offices dependent upon winning competitions. In this way he became busy devilling night and day, and it seems that the idioms of the competition judges his employers sought to please joined those of his earlier masters in his architectural vocabulary. This tendency, evident in his second Soane submission, was likely seen by Lorimer, who made him promise to stop hacking for architects in London and to work only for himself.10 Perhaps feeling the same way, another old friend and teacher from Edinburgh, Gerald Baldwin Brown, found an occasion to get him out of London by recommending him to William Peterson, who was seeking a replacement for Stewart Henbest Capper to head the School of Architecture at McGill.

In 1903 Nobbs came to McGill to teach as Capper had done,11 but very soon he felt it necessary to practise to demonstrate what architecture is, being doubtful that it could be explained well enough by words and pictures. After some hesitation McGill agreed that he might do so, but only in association with a practising architect. These first years of practice were marked by great activity. The McGill University Union (now the McCord Museum), undertaken in association with Hutchison and Wood, was his first Canadian work. The sketches, presentation and working drawings, details, and furniture drawings in the CAC document the development and scope of Nobbs's design. In every respect, the building remains a demonstration of compositional elegance and constructional good sense, consistently carried out, and a joy to experience. His second work, in association with David R. Brown, was a house for Dr. C.W. Colby. This was followed by a house for Dr. J.B. Porter, in association with Cecil Burgess. Both houses have vanished along with the life they were intended to serve, but drawings and photographs show that each had individual charm, well fitted to its particular setting and looking handsome to passers-by. During this time Nobbs assessed competitions for the Halifax Cathedral, the Alexandra Hospital, the Nurses Home of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and the new Medical Building at McGill.12 Then in 1907, after a destructive fire in April, the Macdonald Engineering Building had to be rebuilt immediately. Nobbs redesigned the structure and supervised its construction, working daily with Sir William Macdonald, the donor and a Governor of McGill. In the following year the architect helped with the final revisions for the Parliament Building in Edmonton. He prepared a program for a similar building in Regina and, in a different vein, amazed his colleagues by winning a silver medal in a foils display at the Olympic Games in London. He was a swift and well co-ordinated athlete with a zest for competition, qualities likely related to his exceptional ability to see accurately and to draw with sureness.

In 1909 Nobbs was elected an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy, married Mary Cecilia Shepherd, and became well established in the life of Montreal. His professional involvement and completed works fully demonstrated his ability as an architect and the wisdom of extending his practice and reducing his teaching activities. At the end of 1909 he tendered his resignation as director of the School of Architecture. In the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and formed a partnership with George Taylor Hyde, commencing the practice that is almost entirely documented in this collection and which continued until Hyde's death in 1944. During all but the last four years of this period, Nobbs combined his practice with a less demanding appointment as Professor of Design at McGill.

In the early years of Nobbs's practice with Hyde, prior to the onset of World War I, the firm designed many houses for individual clients, including several groups of houses for T.P. Howard and Thomas Lamb and a delightful country house, garden, and outbuildings for Dr. J.L. Todd. While all of these showed Nobbs's mastery in architectural composition, a splendid building for the University Club of Montreal gave him special opportunities to work with a variety of materials and to exploit the applied arts. An heraldically ornamented plaster ceiling, stained glass windows, a graceful elliptical stair, and several decorated fireplaces are but some of the masterpieces of design and craftsmanship in the club. Moreover, furniture and fittings, either designed or selected by the architect, make the interiors exceptionally harmonious.

Three schools, Edward VII, Strathearn, and Peace Centennial, designed for the Protestant Board of School Commissioners of Montreal, were practical and comely buildings that combined ideal space and natural light standards required for children with some spirited patriotic symbols and an exploration of the language of form and ornament that so fascinated Nobbs. Two works for Henry Birks and Sons, a combined silver factory and office building in Montreal and a remodelled store and offices in Winnipeg, and the Canadian head office of the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company revealed the firm's skill in handling impressive commercial architecture with style and telling ornament.

A breathtaking proposal for student residences, stadium, and gymnasium and drill hall at McGill and a comprehensive plan for the new University of Alberta showed hitherto unexplored dimensions in grouping buildings in Canada. Only the McGill stadium and the Arts Building and two laboratories at the University of Alberta were completed before war broke out. In 1913 Nobbs built a house for himself on a challenging site on Montreal's Mount Royal with an ideal exposure and magnificent views, to all of which he made a characteristic response in brick and slate, massing his composition about a central chimney and arranging the simply treated windows to capture the right light for the right purpose throughout the day.

Furniture and fittings for Liverpool and London and Globe and for the remodelled St. James Church at Three Rivers were among Nobbs and Hyde's work at the time the First World War interrupted their practice. During the war, 1914-19, Nobbs served in both Canada and at the Front, attaining the rank of Major. For this period the CAC includes a tiny sketch of the tower at Rouen dated 4 August 1918 and an amusing plaster figure of a soldier cheerfully carrying an array of equipment based upon an equally tiny reproduction of an undated sketch that accompanies it.

In 1919, following Nobbs's return, a revised master plan for the University of Alberta and the design of the university's Medical Building were undertaken by the firm. Due to a need for specially shaped rooms and exacting lighting requirements, it became a more complex work than the Arts Building. Nobbs welcomed such problems, finding them stimulating to resolve as he discovered the form of a building.

The need for war memorials at this time aroused in Nobbs a profound response as artist and craftsman. In numerous distinctive and appropriate ways, he designed memorials in bronze, marble, and stained glass for churches, schools, offices, clubs, and city parks. As architectural advisor to the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission he was responsible for much of its most satisfactory work. The firm entered several competitions for the design of major memorials both at home and abroad, submitting the winning scheme for a war memorial museum at Regina. This might well have been a masterpiece, but it had called for an expenditure on a scale that proved beyond the capabilities of post-war Saskatchewan.

At this time the firm's established reputation for the design of pleasant houses brought many commissions, notably from H.R. Trenholme, Mrs. William Stewart, J.H. Magor, and Mrs. George Hyde, their most frequent domestic client, as well as from A.F. Byers and the Birks family for groups of houses. These were mainly built of brick, and all demonstrated Nobbs's characteristic skill in planning and particularly in the arrangement of windows to obtain the most desirable exposure. Nobbs called this consideration in the design of a house its "prospect," which is never obvious to outsiders, architectural photographers, or most critics, but is as important as its "aspect," which is obvious and mostly over-emphasized. There were also some exceptional residential works at this time, including a formal garden and extension to a massive stone house for Dr. W.L. McDougald, which included splendid ornamental gates and iron railings, and a charming suburban house for A.H. Scott that was clearly inspired by the old houses of Quebec so long admired by Nobbs. He was convinced that regionalism in architecture was inevitable and was therefore a sensible source of inspiration for designers. The firm's domestic work also included the restoration of two old houses at Three Rivers, Quebec, the most notable one for C.R. Whitehead. At Almonte, Ontario, Nobbs and Hyde restored an old house for J. Macintosh Bell and converted an 1830 gristmill to serve as a summer home and studio for R. Tait McKenzie, the distinguished surgeon-sculptor and physical educator. Stone houses for G.W. Grier and R. Reid Dobell in the late twenties were the last of the firm's important residential designs.

In the decade 1920-30 Nobbs and Hyde produced a considerable body of important work for McGill. First came a proposal for a monumental war memorial convocation hall inspired by enthusiasm for the university's remarkable wartime contributions. While the design went through several stages of simplification, it was eventually set aside. Later, a handsome addition was made to the Redpath Library providing a needed extension to the stack and rooms for special collections, one of which was the Blackader Library of Architecture and Art, itself a war memorial.13 In 1920 Sir William Osler's library of historic medical books was bequeathed to McGill, and Nobbs created an exquisite room in the Strathcona Medical Building to receive it. The next work was a new Pathology Building in the design of which the natural grouping of functional elements provided a potentially delightful irregular form that suited the site and neighbouring buildings and was handled in the manner of Nobbs's old master Robert Lorimer. In 1925 the firm commenced the design of a new building for the Pulp and Paper Research Institute, intended as one of a group which would complete the southeast corner of the campus. The building had two main elements, one comprising offices and laboratories and the other an industrial-type space that housed a model paper mill. Both elements were appropriately handled in stone with generous windows. Unfortunately, an end bay of the section fronting on University Street was never constructed - a sorry scar - but not as great as the total elimination of the handsome accompanying building that was to occupy the corner at Sherbrooke Street. This was to have been the Douglas residence and gymnasium. At the final moment before construction it was decided to reserve this site for other purposes. Finally, the last building Nobbs and Hyde designed for McGill was an extension to the Royal Victoria College - a bedroom wing with reception rooms and living quarters for the matron. The extension was designed to relate pleasantly to the sober facades which lined University Street, yet when it turned the corner at Sherbrooke Street, it was made to flower into a composition of roofs and gables which responded to Bruce Price's original building for the college.

The last major commercial work of Nobbs and Hyde was the Drummond Medical Building. It was thoughtfully designed for clinical and surgical offices and was unusual at the time in that it contained a parking garage for its users. The garage was organized in an exemplary manner, accessible to the entrance lobby and arranged to have easy ramps between half floors. Its pattern had been explored earlier for the same client, Henry Birks and Sons, in the Royal Garage, a total garage structure that stood on Cathcart Street (demolished to make room for the Place Ville Marie).

The firm's last notable religious works were the war memorial chapel in Christ Church Cathedral and the remodelling of the interior of the Erskine and American United Church. The first involved refurnishing the nominal south transept of the Cathedral with a splendid new altar and reredos; chancel furniture, including candlesticks and rail; a screen dividing the chapel from the Cathedral's south aisle; and a new vestibule. This work provided an opportunity for exquisite joinery and carving in a medieval manner, yet it was designed with Nobbs's characteristic wit and appropriateness. The two figures atop the screen, reminiscent of Christ's mourners Mary and St. John, are a military nurse and stretcher-bearer. Carefully chosen colour and fresh stencil work related the walls and ceiling of the old transept to the new work. Rebuilding the interior of the Erskine and American United Church was more extensive. It was not only an opportunity for some splendid non-figurative ornament and handsome new furniture and fittings, but it gave the architects a chance to normalize the axis of the interior with the basic structure of the church. Previously it had been contrived upon a diagonal of a square space, resulting in a chaotic arrangement of the windows. The reconstruction gave the church great dignity and must be ranked as the firm's most successful large-scale interior space. While the financial depression of the thirties left few clients in Canada with the resources to build well, the Second World War brought the kind of work Nobbs and Hyde enjoyed to an end.

Between the two world wars Nobbs received many commendations. In 1920 he was elected an Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy, in 1924 he became President of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects, in 1928 the President of the Town Planning Institute of Canada, in 1929 he was elected to the Royal Society of Arts and became the President of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. During the thirties when work was slow he published his three books. Design: A Treatise on the Discovery of Form is a summary of his architectural philosophy, many of its chapters having been given as lectures. Salmon Tactics and Fencing Tactics record the great pleasure that fishing and fencing gave him.14 Just as Nobbs was delighted by buildings, he loved the outdoors.

In 1939 he retired from teaching, but in 1941 served as McGill's delegate on the Montreal City Council, where he played an active role in the new city planning department. In 1942 he became the acting President of the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1948 he founded the Atlantic Salmon Association and in 1952 received the Outdoor Life Conservation Award. In 1957 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by McGill. Nobbs died 5 November 1964.

The most complete appreciation of Nobbs and his achievements is the monograph Percy Erskine Nobbs: Architect, Artist, Craftsman by Susan Wagg.15 It is an essential introduction to the man, his objectives, and his most notable work.

An introductory account of Nobbs's role in early Canadian planning and his effort to obtain improvements in Montreal is given in an unpublished paper by Professor Jeanne Wolfe and her student Judi Bouman at the McGill School of Urban Planning entitled "Percy Nobbs & City Improvement."16 In addition, Sir Andrew MacPhail's careful review of Nobbs's book Design provides a brief yet insightful account of Nobbs and his work that needs to be read by anyone seeking a sketch of the man and his philosophy.17




1P.E. Nobbs, "Those Russians," 1957, Nobbs Archive, CAC.

2"Mr. Percy E. Nobbs," CAB 16 (October 1903): 159.

3Christopher Hussey, "Work of Sir Robert Lorimer," Country Life [London] (1931): 16-17.

4"Canditate's Separate Statement. Fellow.," 13 November [1910], Royal Institute of British Architects Records.

5Arch Assoc Sketch Book, 3rd Series 5 (1901): pl. 56; 7 (1903): 28.

6"Design for an Isolated Clock Tower and Belfry: Perspective, Plans, Elevation and Section," The Builder 78 (17 February 1900): following p. 166.

7Build J Arch Rec 320 (27 March 1901): 130-38.

8Build News (23 August 1901): 256-57, 261; Arch Assoc Sketch Book 3rd Series 5 (1901): pl. 60-64; 6 (1902): pl. 68; 8 (1904): pl. 59-62; and CAB 17 (January 1904) and (February 1904).

9Br Archt 59 (20 March 1903): 208-9, 212.

10P.E. Nobbs, "Competition Reform," JRAIC 12 (September 1935): 150-52.

11JRIBA 10 (29 August 1903):511.

12"Candidate's Separate Statement. Fellow.," 13 November [1910], Royal Institute of British Architects Records.

13The library was founded in 1917 in memory of Captain Gordon Home Blackader (1885-1916), a graduate of the McGill School of Architecture and subsequently a partner in the Montreal architectural firm of Barott, Blackader and Webster.

14P.E. Nobbs, Design: a Treatise on the Discovery of Form, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1937); Salmon Tactics, (London: Philip Allan, 1934); and Fencing Tactics, (London: Philip Allan, 1936).

15Susan Wagg, Percy Erskine Nobbs: Architect, Artist, Craftsman, (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press, 1982).

16Jeanne M. Wolfe and Judi Bouman, "Percy Nobbs and City Improvement," McGill School of Urban Planning, n.d., Nobbs Archive, CAC.

17Sir Andrew MacPhail, "Design: a Review of Mr. Nobbs' Book," JRAIC 14 (June 1937): 114-15.