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Percy Nobbs was born in Scotland but spent his first 12 years in St. Petersburg, Russia. (1875-1887)
Later he studied architecture in Edinburgh but really made his mark in Montreal after he was offered the Macdonald Chair of Architecture at McGill in 1903. It was through the then Dean of Medicine at McGill, Dr. Frank Shepherd, that Percy met and fell in love with Dr. Shepherd’s daughter Cecil (Mary Cecilia Shepherd) and Phoebe's mother.
Percy soon became a prominent Montreal architect. Besides eight new buildings on the McGill Campus as well as some impressive interiors on campus, some of his better known buildings in Montreal include the Student Union building, now the McCord Museum, the University Club on Mansfield, the Drummond Medical Building and the New Birks Building.
He worked on projects in other parts of Canada too – a fine example being the plaster decoration in the University of Alberta Arts Bldg., which was done while he was in Alberta to organize the physical training and bayonet instruction for Canadians during World War I. This interior is described as most beautiful and sumptuous.
Percy even designed the dresses and caps for Cecil’s bridesmaids at their wedding in Como in 1909!
Percy Nobbs played a role in bringing the Arts and Crafts Movement to Canada. He disliked the ugly products of industrialism and believed that new buildings should look as though they had always been there.
To accomplish this goal, he preferred to use natural materials such as wood, wrought iron and stone. The terra cotta and wrought ironwork of the Drummond Medical building is a fine example.
Percy was also an accomplished writer and artist.
His books include one on design, another on salmon fishing and one on fencing tactics. He participated in the London Olympics of 1908 (and won a silver medal as part of a fencing display event).
Percy was still fencing in his 80’s!
His paintings include the "Illuminations of the Kremlin" to celebrate the coronation of the last Czar Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra which Percy attended, and landscapes of his birthplace in Scotland, the Matane River where he salmon fished, his wife’s garden in Como and his Westmount home on Belvedere Rd.
Percy Nobbs created the Atlantic Salmon Federation located in New Brunswick, which today is still an active and important organization which funds research for salmon conservation and habits.
In 1952 he earned the Outdoor Life Conservation award as the man who contributed most to the conservation of wildlife that year.
Percy was certainly a man ahead of his times!
(This article was written by Eleanor Abbey. Eleanor is a great-granddaughter of R. W. and Mary Cecilia Shepherd and sister of the Late Marg Peyton.)
For additional details about Percy, read:
CLEAR RECOLLECTIONS: Memoirs of Percy Nobbs, edited and annotated by Karen Molson
And watch this short documentary (Parts 1 and 2):