by Kelly Crossman

[Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987]

reproduced with the generous permission of the author and the publisher.


Chapter 8:
Percy Erskine Nobbs and a National Theory




In his biographical note on the life of Gerald Baldwin Brown, the first Watson Gordon professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, D. Talbot Rice wrote that Brown's historical writing was marked by a perspective where "art is considered as manifestation of the life and culture of its age, and where great importance is always given to the connexion between art and its social background."1 While Brown never taught in Canada, it is with him that we find the natural beginning to this chapter, for it was this idea - that all art is intimately connected with the society from which it springs - which lay behind the development of Canadian architectural criticism after 1896, and it was, indirectly at least, the teaching of Brown which had brought this about.2

In 1880, Edinburgh University appointed Brown, who was then thirty-one and a graduate of Uppingham and Oriel College, Oxford, to fill the newly established Watson Gordon Chair. As the university calendar made clear, the Department of Fine Art had been established to provide not a technical education, but a theoretical one. "The Watson Gordon class-room is by no means to be employed as a technical school," it stated. "But the object of the Chair will be to impart full knowledge, and correct ideas with regard to the history and theory of fine arts, including painting, sculpture, and architecture, and other branches of art therewith connected."3 With this in mind, Brown quickly established the reputation of the new depart-ment, which, despite its theoretical orientation, was nonetheless open to the practical needs of students in painting and architecture. For instance, in 1884 the department offered a course of forty lectures on architecture "especially designed for those who are pursuing architecture as a profession."4

Through his writing and his teaching, Brown was soon a leading figure in Scottish intellectual and academic life with a range of activities and honours to his credit, including in 1890 the presidency of the Edinburgh Architectural Association. Among his students at Edinburgh was S. Henbest Capper, and there is little doubt that Capper was given his post at McGill University in 1896 on Brown's recommendation. In 1895, scarcely a year before the establishment of a chair in architecture at McGill, Sir William Dawson had retired from the principalship of the university and the post had been offered to and accepted by another Scottish academic, William Peterson. Born in Edinburgh and educated at Oxford, Peterson had been appointed to the faculty of Edinburgh University in 1879. In 1882 he had taken up a position as principal of University College, Dundee, where he remained until leaving for Montreal.5 While in Scotland, Peterson had become a good friend of Brown and so, when looking for a suitable man to fill the chair in architecture at McGill in 1896, he turned quite naturally to him for advice. Brown in turn suggested Capper as the man for the job.6 The significance of Capper's appointment at McGill was twofold. It set the stage for the future development of links between the Department of Fine Art at Edinburgh and the Faculty of Architecture at McGill - a correspondence that was to have important and long-lasting ramifications for Canadian architecture - and it meant that, under Capper's direction, the architecture course at McGill would from the very beginning have a strong theoretical and humanistic character.

In the course of his career at McGill, which lasted from his appointment in 1896 to his resignation in 1903, Capper had as his aim the establishment of an architectural program modelled on those of the United States, including training in design and architectural science as well as the theory and history of architecture. But while Capper's efforts at McGill met with only limited success, in the more public world of the architectural profession as a whole he played an important role as a member of the PQAA and as an architectural critic. As one might expect of a man trained by Brown, Capper held as central the idea that architecture was fundamentally the expression of the age which produced it. In consequence, he emphasized the role of architectural history and, in turn, the value to historical scholarship of architecture. In his lectures he argued that it was possible to see in historical architecture living evidence of the past. "It is, perhaps," he said, "through its buildings mainly that the past holds out in tangible form its living hand to the present."7 In addition, it was also Capper's belief that, because the relationship between society and architecture could be observed in the architecture of the past, architects of the present day would do well to study past architecture and work from it.

Indeed, he suggested that through the study of the past, architects would find their way to a new national architecture. "In a very special way, architecture is concerned in the ennobling legacy of the past," he said, and "only through the past can we builders learn thoroughly to grasp the present and work out strenuously the future of our craft."8

In his lectures and his writing, Capper pointed to the development of architecture along national and historical lines which was then such a marked feature of architectural life in Great Britain and throughout Northern Europe.9 Given what we have seen to be clear evidence of a desire among Canadian architects for just such a national architecture from the early 1890s onwards, it is curious that nothing of a similar nature was attempted in Canada until after 1900. Certainly one difficulty any movement of this sort would have had to overcome was the problem of Canadian history and nationality. Could any nation with such a brief history and undefined nationality as Canada hope to find evidence of a national architecture in its own past? Moreover without deep traditions of the kind found in Great Britain or continental Europe, on what foundation might a modern national architecture be based?

The man who attempted to solve these problems and in so doing provide Canadian architects with an architectural theory enabling them to explore their own architectural past and, working from this, to develop a national architecture as had their European counterparts was not Capper himself, but his successor at McGill. In 1903 Capper resigned his position at McGill in order to leave Montreal and take up a position at Victoria University, Manchester. Looking for a suitable replacement, William Peterson turned once again to Edinburgh University and offered the Macdonald professorship to another graduate of the Department of Fine Art, Percy Erskine Nobbs (1875-1964; figure 49).

Born in 1875 in Haddington, a small market town just outside Edinburgh, Nobbs spent the early part of his life in St Petersburg, where his father worked for the St Petersburg Commercial Joint Stock Bank. Upon returning to Edinburgh, Nobbs studied first at the Edinburgh Collegiate School and then at Edinburgh University, where he took a Master of Arts degree in 1896.10 That same year he entered the Edinburgh College of Art. Subsequently, he worked first in the office of Robert Lorimer and then in the architectural wing of the London County Council, fire brigade branch. In 1900 he won the Tite prize from the RIBA and two years later the Owen Jones studentship for work in colour.11

As Nobbs himself was to recognize in later life, one of the formative influences on his architectural thought was the academic training he had received at the hands of Gerald Baldwin Brown.12 Similarily it would be difficult to overestimate the effect on Nobbs of the ideas of the Gothic Revival, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and especially the exploration of those ideals in the practice of Sir Robert Lorimer. Indeed, describing the Edinburgh childhood of his friend, contemporary, and later colleague at McGill, Ramsay Traquair, Nobbs wrote, "It is worth remembering that in the artistic life of the Edinburgh in which Professor Traquair grew up, the Gothic Revival was still actively in force." Traquair, Nobbs continued, "had an inevitable (remember the time and place of his upbringing) intimacy with the arts and crafts and all that pre-Raphaelites and William Morris stood for."13 The same could well be said of Nobbs himself.

The intervention of Eden Smith and the Eighteen Club in the affairs of the OAA was, as we have seen, an important manifestation of the spread of Arts and Crafts ideas to Canada. Now, with the appointment of Nobbs to McGill, we have an example of Arts and Crafts influence entering Canadian architecture in another way, through the universities and by way of Scotland. As we saw in chapter 6, the formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in England in 1877 was evidence of a shift - in the context of the Gothic Revival as a whole - away from a point of view which saw some Gothic styles as intrinsically better than others, towards a value which saw all architecture as a form of historical evidence. Its central principle was "to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying."14 At the same time, historical styles would be "the basis for the production of a genuine nineteenth-century architecture," and a reverence for traditional building technology "the basis for architectural development."15 In response, Philip Webb, W.R. Lethaby, and others tried to design modern buildings which took as their starting point the traditional architecture and building techniques of England. Inevitably these ideas found their way northwards to Scotland. Rowand Anderson, for example, established the National Art Survey of Scotland to encourage the study of vernacular building. But though Arts and Crafts ideas were in the wind, as late as 1890 no one in Scotland had attempted to explore them in practice; that is to establish in Scotland, as Webb had done in England, a modern school of architecture based on the vernacular. This was to be the accomplishment of Sir Robert Lorimer.

Born in Edinburgh in 1864, the son of a professor in law, Robert Lorimer had entered the office of the Edinburgh architect Hew Wardrup in 1884 following an incomplete and rather unsuccessful career at Edinburgh University, where he had read Humanities, Greek, and Fine Art. Under Wardrup's tutelage and that of his partners, George Washington Browne and especially Rowand Anderson, Lorimer completed his articles and then travelled south to work in the London office of the Arts and Crafts architect George Frederic Bodley. After rather less than a year in Bodley's office, Lorimer moved to the office of the late Scots architect James Maclaren and then in 1893 returned to Edinburgh to set up his own office.16

Upon his return to Scotland, Lorimer, under the influence of the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement and out of a deep love of Scotland and its architecture, attempted to adapt the ideas of Webb to Scotland. In a series of houses modelled on the traditional Scottish architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he brought the Arts and Crafts idea to Scotland in a way that had not been done before, gaining the recognition of Herman Muthesius, who noted in his famous survey of British housing, Das Englische Haus, that "Scotland will not achieve what England has already achieved - a completely national style of house building based on the old vernacular architecture - until it follows the lead given by Lorimer."17

It was in the midst of this experimentation and development along Arts and Crafts lines that Nobbs, in Lorimer's office, received his training. For Nobbs, the heart of Lorimer's work and that branch of the Arts and Crafts movement of which he was a part was its nationalist impulse and the desire to draw upon the vernacular architecture of the past. Calling Lorimer "the last of the great romantics, with a name to put beside that of Philip Webb and Norman Shaw," Nobbs saw Lorimer as a man who had been able to express through architecture his country's spirit. "It was given him," Nobbs wrote, "to materialize in building the very essence of the Scottish spirit as it had not been done since the days of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. And this was all the more remarkable in that he came after a generation of archaeological barbarians had been making play with what they were pleased to call the Scots baronial style."18 For Nobbs, the nationalism implicit in Lorimer's work was characteristic of the Arts and Crafts as a whole and one of the lasting results of the Gothic Revival. Writing in 1907, Nobbs concluded that

The third and perhaps the most important influence of Gothicism on design in general was the Nationalistic tendency. William Morris had done much by his writings to stimulate the appreciation of the excellence of the vernacular English architecture, or rather, building, of the days before industrialism laid its sordid hands on English life, and a body of domestic architects devoted to beautiful old ways of doing things, sprang into existence. These men were keen to perceive the excellence of local styles, in which materials rather than exotic fashions dictated the treatment. It is to this school that the present pre-eminence of English domestic architecture, both in planning and detail, is due, and it is needless to say that most of them had been trained in the offices of the great Gothic Revivalists.19

And who were these men keen to perceive the excellence of local styles? Nobbs went on to ask, answering, "First among them I would name Philip Webb, and then W.E. Nesfield, whose lodge at Kew was the first graceful effort towards the revival of the Queen Anne style. Other masters of this unostentatious school are the firm of Ernest George and Peto, Ernest Newton, E.S. Prior, E. Lutyens, J. Kinross and W. Brierley, R.W. Jackson and R.S. Lorimer."20

It was with this background in the Arts and Crafts, these sympathies, and above all a belief in nationality as a source from which architectural development could proceed that Nobbs came to Canada in the summer of 1903. As he was soon to discover, however, for someone with his ideological integrity the architectural situation in Canada was far from straightforward. There was, on the one hand, as yet no scholarly understanding of traditional Canadian building, and on the other the sheer power of American design could not but have an effect on Canadian work, making the development of an indigenous tradition all the more difficult.

When Nobbs arrived in Montreal, the local firm of Brown and Miller had just completed construction of a new American-inspired design for the Board of Trade, replacing the earlier one by Shepley, Ruttan, and Coolidge, which had been destroyed by fire. The Bank of Montreal addition by McKim, Mead, and White was already visible off the Place d'Armes. Both of these made an impression on Nobbs. He later recalled: "On arriving at the Montreal docks, my cab passed the new Board of Trade building by Brown and Miller and I made a mental note that 'There are people here who know how.' I was soon to be shown over the Bank of Montreal, then under construction from the design of Mr. Mead (McKim, Mead and White of New York) and made my evaluation of the Craig Street façade as the best thing of its kind in the city or anywhere else for that matter" (figure 33 A Monograph of the Work of McKim, Mead and White (New York 1915) ).21

Despite his admiration for the work of McKim, Mead, and White, Nobbs was quick to realize that the Beaux-Arts system either in its American form or as practised by Canadians who had returned from study in Paris was a system not in sympathy with his own ideals. By their very nature, Nobbs was to argue, the methods of the Beaux-Arts precluded that responsiveness to local circumstance and culture which was essential to architectural art. In an article which appeared in Construction, Nobbs wrote: "The weak point about the academic system of architecture is its elastic quality. Within the Union there is every conceivable climate, and the profusely illustrated American building papers show us the identical architectural formulae applied throughout the States. This is carrying the principle of national homogeneity in architectural expression to a reductio ad absurdum, but the point of interest to us is not that academic bondage prevails among the architects of the United States, but that we are, of necessity, very liable to infection with those ideals."22

In practice, Nobbs was far from dogmatic in his approach to the Beaux-Arts, finding much to admire in the work of Canadians such as W.S. Maxwell who had studied in Paris. Under certain conditions, and especially when dealing with the problems of large-scale planning, he noted that the academic tradition offered solutions others could well learn from." If the English exponents of architectural culture would realise that the grand manner as practised in Egypt and Babylon and the cities of Alexander's Empire and Imperial Rome and gay Versailles has that in it which would impart a discipline to their planning and a coherence to their composition," he said, "they, too would gain in power of expression."23 But although he was willing to acknowledge the merits of Beaux-Arts planning, and as we shall see he was to do this in a very concrete way in his role as a competitions assessor, upon arriving in Montreal and taking up his post at McGill Nobbs quickly emerged as a leading voice among those who sought to break the spreading influence of the Beaux-Arts and look instead for architectural inspiration to the ideas and traditions of Great Britain.

As an educationalist Nobbs soon found himself face to face with the realities of the Canadian situation. Like J.C.B. Horwood before him, he was not slow to perceive that the conditions of Canadian architecture were bound up with that of the country as a whole. The establishment of Beaux-Arts ateliers in Montreal and Toronto seemed certain to have a considerable effect on architectural education in the country. In Nobbs's view, this spread northward of the ideas and techniques of the Beaux-Arts Society was yet another manifestation of the Americanization of Canada. In his opinion, it was essential that Canadian architecture and Canadian architectural education be based on traditions sympathetic to the country's history and culture. In a lengthy address to the OAA in 1908 Nobbs attacked the formation of the Beaux-Arts ateliers on these grounds. "We have," he said, "while on the most friendly terms with the organizers of the movements, strenuously opposed the spread of their influence in Canada, on the ground that our history and tradition is different from that of the United States, and should be expressed in our architecture which has no logical relation with the academic school of Paris."24 This school, he said,

repudiates medievalism, both French and English, as having no contribution of tradition to offer our modern architecture and particularly ignores the building achievement of England as a negligible quantity ... a tremendous organisation exists in the Beaux-Arts Society which is ready and willing to affiliate Canadian architectural societies and schools, and it is likely to do so simply because there is no Canadian machinery of art education to take its place; and this is where the glorious traditions of English and French medieval and renaissance architecture are our natural and rightful heritage, just as truly as our traditions in the matter of literature and language!
The political aspect of the "Americanization" of our arts, where they might just as well be based on National and Imperial tradition is, we venture to think, one which needs only to be pointed out to be appreciated by those at the helm of State.

Soon after his arrival, Nobbs began to press for the development of a legitimately Canadian architecture. Drawing upon his background in the Arts and Crafts, he found it natural that this new architecture should be based on traditional forms combined with a sensitivity to geography and climate. The difficulty lay in the fact that, unlike the countries of Europe, Canada seemed to have no traditional architecture of its own upon which a new architecture might be based. As Nobbs observed, the Canadian profession remained unaware or uncertain about its own, legitimate traditions. "I think we all have a good deal to learn," he told a group of assembled architects, "because we have not established the type of our cycle very clearly, and we are still at sixes and sevens with our traditions."26

Despite this, it was Nobbs's argument that Canadian architects could well work from the past, provided they kept in mind the principle of development and did not resort to a slavish reproduction of old architecture. Above all, Nobbs held out the hope that the rigours of the Canadian climate would in time produce a Canadian architecture. "Ultimately," he said, "we might therefore expect in Canada as many architectures as climates, since architectural character is largely resultant from windows and roof forms."27

We should ... derive great benefit from the fact that we have to invent our own solutions for the roof problem and not accept our great grandfathers', and as to the window question, there is no really satisfactory solution in sight yet that I am aware of. If we remember that it is the roof and the window that make the architecture, we see then we have our work before us. The features of English architecture - chimneys, parapets, bays, ranges of lights, rain heads and all the rest of it - are absolutely inappropriate for our use. But the simple inventive spirit in which these things were evolved and welded together in vernacular use, and the reserved but kindly sentiment which these things evinced, we can surely take to heart and apply now.28

This interest in the effect which climate had on the generation of architectural form, together with his conviction that it provided modern architects with clues for their own work, led Nobbs to look at the traditional architecture of Quebec with a discerning eye. Shortly after arriving in Montreal, he remarked in a series of articles published in the CAB that the traditional greystone houses of the city were marked by a character and suitability to local conditions not found in houses of more recent construction. To his mind, these houses, and the traditional architecture of Canada generally, suggested that architects in the past had produced an architecture suited to the country, but that over time this skill had been lost. "Our predecessors in this country up to about 1825 were doing pretty well in his matter," he told the royal Architectural Society of Canada in 1910:

The stone houses of Quebec and Nova Scotia and the clap-board houses of New England showed real evolution of style, and in them a good many of our problems were solved at an early date. The lamentable thing is that the secret has been lost, and now we have to substitute architectural education at universities and other temporary expedients till such time as it is regained. To think that neither for love nor money could such a thoroughly sound piece of work, sound in taste and sound in construction, be put up to-day in a town or village throughout this broad Dominion as can be found, once at least in five miles, on the shore all the way from Mulgrave Straits to Ottawa City and all dated before 1840.29

As we have seen, sentiments along these lines had been heard from time to time beginning in the 1890s, but Nobbs was the first to suggest that these vernacular forms might form the basis for a new national architecture.

From 1904 onwards Nobbs expressed and explored these ideas as far as he was able, in lectures, articles, and his own work. Many of his ideas are a restatement of Arts and Crafts principles adapted to Canada, but at root the vigour of his thinking lay in an aesthetic system which saw the true purpose of all art, including architecture, as expression. "Art," he declared in 1910, "is a simple and natural human activity, not an inexplicable quintessential mystery." Its purpose was always expression, he said, and "the subject matter of this mode of expression is that whole range and gamut of emotion and sentiment, and ... the means employed - the raw material of this expression - is sensuous pleasure."30 In a career spanning more than half a century, Nobbs never wavered from this point of view. It gave his thought a consistency unrivalled among Canadian architects during the crucial years of expansion before 1914.

Although architecture was, above all, an art, for Nobbs there was an important distinction between architecture itself and the sister arts of painting and sculpture. While these latter remained the preserve of personal expression, architecture alone expressed society as a whole. Thus, he said, "the phenomena of architectural evolution ("The Styles," as the popular phrase expresses it) can best be explained by the ethnographic theory which regards architecture as history writ large; as the expression of the age in which it was generated ... national expression ... is the function of design."31 It was the interrelationship of the individual with society which generated architectural style. As he told the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 1910, "When men have had great feelings to express and great power of expressing them, happily joined with great opportunities, styles have been developed and evolved and brought to perfection, and from these we can deduce something of the everlasting laws and principles of our art in the light of which to model all sorts and conditions of designs."32

The second fundamental principle of Nobbs's thought was his belief in the validity of the linguistic analogy as an analytical tool; the idea that architecture is a sort of language in which one's power of expression depends on the skilful employment of a basic grammar of elements, which, together with allusion, metaphor, and imagery, can be used to call up shared experience. Just how characteristic this idea was of Nobbs's criticism was pointed out by Sir Andrew Macphail, a friend and colleague of Nobbs's at McGill. In his review of Nobbs's treatise Design, Macphail wrote:

The analogy between the methods of literary expression and those for the discovery of form is pressed throughout the book. Pure form is regarded as clear statement. Modification by scale, by proportion and by refinement is regarded as elaboration of a thesis; the orders as metrical formulae, functional ornament as syntax, decoration as rhetoric and allusion. From this it is inferred that clarity of design like clarity in the written word is a virtue, and over-elaboration in form as in speech defeats its own purpose. In the case of major works of design this analogy is very clear. The plan is the plot; its structural development may create dramatic situations. The building may smile or frown or rest serene, its structural elements may chatter or chant, do their work with drilled precision or with playful exuberance. The artist in design controls all this behaviour. At his will there is a discreet mystery or expansive frivolity of seriousness. It is not alone in the plot but in the telling of the story that art is manifest; a like mood is engendered in the hearer of the tale and in the spectator of the building.33

For Nobbs the linguistic analogy was particularly helpful in understanding the use and power of traditional architectural forms. Speaking to the OAA in 1907, he argued that architects might well turn to the past for inspiration: "Traditional forms in architecture are as potent as in poetry to imbue the educated mind with a host of associations whereby to unravel the meaning of the "work of art," and a self-sufficiency though it may lead to originality will seldom lead to the deepest of beauties. Just as surely as the literature of this country must be founded on the literature which is our inheritance, so surely must its architecture depend upon the understanding of the architecture that has gone before."34

Both these ideas, the linguistic analogy and the conception that all art is a form of expression, were developed in Benedetto Croce's treatise on aesthetics: Estetica come Scienza dell'espressione e Linguistica Generate.35 We know by Nobbs's own admission that this book had a crucial effect on the development of his own ideas,36 and so we can place him solidly within the aesthetic tradition of the twentieth century. As Peter Collins observed, "ever since Benedetto Croce rehabilitated the philosophy of the mid-eighteenth century historian Giambattista Vico by asserting that all art is a type of language, it has been customary for writers on aesthetics, such as R.G. Collingwood, to regard all art as essentially something to do with 'expression'. Hence art has come to be regarded as a kind of eloquence, whereby its virtue is not in the form produced so much as in the emotion which it produces; not in the object created but in the intensity and sincerity by which expression is achieved."37

While many of Nobbs's ideas clearly had their basis in the Arts and Crafts movement, Benedetto Croce's theory provided Nobbs with a way to incorporate them into a larger, general aesthetic system. By 1908 Nobbs had come to see architecture in its highest form as a fine art demonstrating that power of expression integral to art in general. It is this belief which caused him to write, in terms characteristic of those who have accepted Croce's ideas, that the litmus test of architecture was not its form but the emotion which lay behind it, and especially the degree to which that emotion or sentiment had been caught in the creative act: "It is the sentiment of the thing that really matters most," Nobbs wrote, "and the one criterion by which to judge the excellence of a work is its potency to infect the emotions of the public it is made for."38

In his willingness and indeed his ability to adapt aesthetic theory to the particular conditions of Canadian architecture, Nobbs gave Canadian architects a theoretical foundation upon which to base their work. What is more, by calculation or by chance, Nobbs's ideas synthesized to a remarkable degree various currents of thought which had entered Canadian architecture during the 1880s and 1890s - Arts and Crafts ideas, the importance of climate, the legitimacy of French and English forms to Canadian context, interest in the Quebec vernacular - all under an umbrella of national development. He had arrived just as these ideas found their way into the mainstream of architectural life. It is this which explains the influence and widespread acceptance of his thought. He was soon in demand as a speaker and critic; Bertram Goodhue observed in 1907 that Nobbs was "evidently the architectural arbitrator of his Majesty's possessions for the North American continent."39 During the decade before 1914 not everyone agreed with Nobbs's ideas, but few remained completely unaffected by them.

While Nobbs was destined to influence the course of Canadian architecture more through his work as a teacher and critic than as a practising architect, he practised throughout his life, resigning the Macdonald professorship in 1911 to devote more time to architectural work per se.40 His first commission in Montreal, a union building for the young men of McGill, is a good example of how Nobbs had integrated the legacy of the Arts and Crafts in his own work. He received the commission in June 1904, not quite a year after his arrival in Montreal, so the building is full of events and details taken from his experience in London (figures 50 [Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum]and 51 [canadian architecture collection]). The heavy rustication of the door surround appeared in an earlier design for a town church, while the smooth abstraction of the second-storey drip moulds recalls London work of the period (figure 66 [from the author's collection]). The building itself, however, is based on no easily identifiable model. Nobbs himself suggested Inigo Jones's Queen House, but such debt as there is is one entirely of mood. The McGill Union is a simple four-sided block with a surface of dressed Montreal limestone.41 But across these elevations, and in a manner entirely and beautifully determined by the interior spaces, Nobbs played with the elements at his disposal. These are simple enough - a broad cornice, string course, oriel windows, late-Gothic mullions, a broken pediment. All are borrowed from the architecture of England, but they are abstracted and used out of context, freely, dictated by the formality and classicism of the building's symmetrical plan and massing. The result is certainly one of the best examples in Canada of the spirit of the Arts and Crafts; that is honesty of materials, expression of plan, utility of ornament, free development on historical models, it is this last idea of development which linked Nobbs with all those across the country, Eden Smith, George Reid, Samuel Maclure, and even W.S. Maxwell among them, who were trying to adapt old manners and ways of building to Canadian materials, climate, and life.

The Arts and Crafts architects began with a belief in Gothic and the vernacular, but Nobbs, like many others, saw that the spirit of Gothic could be applied to any style; this is evident in the McGill Union. In broader terms, Nobbs believed that English architects such as R. Norman Shaw, John Brydon, H.T. Hare, and the firm of Lanchester and Rickards had evolved a classical style which was now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a true inheritor of the Gothic spirit. Of Shaw he wrote:

The free Anglo-Classic of this, the greatest perhaps of 19th-century English architects, is based upon the style of the times of Queen Anne. No reliance is placed upon huge porticos or domes to give distinction to Shaw's buildings, and the orders are sparingly used, and mostly for internal effects. Trained in the Gothic school, and familiar in his earlier years with the seductive charms of French Renaissance work, this master more than anyone else has looked the modern problem boldly in the face and without allowing himself to be led away by the cult of "originality at all costs," which is responsible for so much hysterical building, has yet given us a distinctive note after a century of bewilderment - the note of natural evolution along the lines set by our forefathers - the truest note that can be struck in building art. Shaw's work is nothing if not English - severe, masculine, refined, relying in the main on the most abstract of architectural accomplishments - proportion - but not ignoring the most material considerations of pleasant tradesmanship. His great brick walls and clean cut stone dressings speak to us of all the qualities of national character to which our glorious, though little comprehended architectural past has been witness down through the years.42

Nobbs paid homage to Norman Shaw in his Macdonald Engineering Building of 1907, a project again at McGill, and like the McGill Union funded by the university's benefactor, Sir William Macdonald (figure 52 [Notman photographic Archives, McCord Museum] ). Although the building derives its own character from the local limestone, the relationship of plan to elevation, and a programmatic use of detail, its massing looks to Shaw's work (figure 53 [Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum] ). But Nobbs's deference to Shaw had a deeper consequence. His willingness to accept the resurgent Classicism and the Grand Manner of English architecture as a model suitable for Canada was the final link in a chain of influences and ideas which Nobbs developed in his writing and which he set forth as a course for the development of Canadian architecture. Beginning with an aesthetic theory which saw the expression of national character as architecture's natural goal, Nobbs had taken the cause of Canadian architecture as his own. In opposition to the techniques and forms of the Academic system, Nobbs urged Canadian architects to look to their own soil for inspiration and to the traditions of France and Great Britain. Although only twenty-eight when coming to Canada, within three years Nobbs found himself at the very centre of the Canadian profession. It is to this that we now turn.


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1 D. Talbot Rice, "Gerald Baldwin Brown," Dictionary of National Biography (London 1949), 105-6.

2 This idea of "Kuntsgeschichte" reflects the traditions of German scholarship and has dominated twentieth-century architectural history. See Watkin, The Rise of Architectural History, 2-17 and 148-60.

3 Edinburgh University Calendar, 1880-1, p. 64.

4 Edinburgh University Calendar, 1884-5, p. 64.

5 Canadian Who Was Who (Toronto 1938), 342-7.

6 Peterson-Brown correspondence, Peterson Papers, Department of Architecture File, RG 2P-644-14, McGill University Archives.

7 Capper, "Architecture in the University," 179.

8 Ibid., 181.

9 On national influences in European architecture see Davey, Arts and Crafts Architecture, 195-203.

10 Bland, "Percy Erskine Nobbs,"JRAIC 42:1 (1965): 14; a review of Nobbs's early life can be found in Wagg, Percy Erskine Nobbs, 1-4.

11 Ibid.

12 On the publication of his book Design: A Treatise in the Discovery of Form, Nobbs entered the following dedication: "To the memory of Professor Gerald Baldwin Brown and Sir Robert Stoddard Lorimer, two of my mentors."

13 Nobbs, "Ramsay Traquair," 147.

14 Macleod, Style and Society, 52.

15 Ibid., 44 and 53.

16 Savage, Lorimer and the Edinburgh Craft Designers, 1-8.

17 Muthesius, The English House, 62.

18 Nobbs, "The Late Sir Robert Lorimer," 352.

19 Nobbs, "Gothic Revivals of the Nineteenth Century," 47-8.

20 Ibid., 48.

21 Nobbs, "Architecture in the Province of Quebec during the Early Years of the Twentieth Century," 418. 10

22 Nobbs, "State Aid to Art Education in Canada," 45

23 Nobbs, "The Architecture of Canada," 58.

24 Nobbs, "State Aid to Art Education in Canada," 45

25 Ibid.

26 Nobbs, "The Architecture of Canada," 60.

27 Nobbs, "Architecture in Canada," 93.

28 Nobbs, "The Architecture of Canada," 59.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., p. 56.

31 Nobbs, "State Aid to Art Education in Canada," 44.

32 Nobbs, "The Architecture of Canada," 57.

33 Macphail, "Design; A Review of Mr. Nobbs' Book," 115.

34 Nobbs, "Gothic Revivals of the Nineteenth Century," 51.

35 Croce, Aesthetics as Science of Expression and General Linguistic appeared in English translation 1909.

36 In Design Nobbs wrote: "With two reservations, the reader is asked to accept the position of Benedetto Croce as set forth in his Aesthetic and General Linguistic in 1907 ... to fill out the arguments here only epitomized." Nobbs, Design, 15.

37 Collins, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture, 173.

38 Nobbs, "The Architecture of Canada," 57.

39 Letter, Goodhue to Nobbs, 11 June 1907, Bertram Goodhue Correspondence, Percy Nobbs Correspondence File, Canadian Architecture Collection, McGill University.

40 This was the cause of disagreement between Nobbs and McGill University; see Wagg, Percy Erskine Nobbs, 21.

41 The McGill Union is described in detail in Wagg, Percy Erskine Nobbs,13-17-

42 Nobbs, "Gothic Revivals of the Nineteenth Century," 48.


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