Traquair, Ramsay, 1874-1952

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Traquair, Ramsay, 1874-1952

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Ramsay Traquair (1874-1952) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the first child of Ramsay Heatley Traquair, a distinguished scientist and curator of the Natural History collection of the Royal Museum in Edinburgh and the Irish-born Phoebe Anna Traquair, a talented painter, illustrator and decorative artist closely connected with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Traquair came to Canada in 1913, armed with a well rounded Edinburgh education (Edinburgh University and the School of Applied Arts, now the Royal College of Art), a teaching experience at the Royal College of Arts where, in 1908 he became head of its newly established day course in Architecture, and a series of local apprenticeships and professional associations, first with Stewart Henbest Capper (1889-1925) and later with Sir Robert Lorimer (1864-1929), Arthur George Sydney Mitchell (1856-1930) and George Wilson (1845-1912). His own Edinburgh practice, which he set up in 1905, was brief; his most notable buildings being the First Church of Christ Scientist (1911) on Inverleith Terrace and the Skirling House for Lord Carmichael of Skirling in Peeblesshire (1908). When, in 1912, Traquair applied for the Macdonald Chair in Architecture at McGill University, he promised “to regard teaching as my life’s work with only so much practice as is necessary to keep in touch with realities.” The University, which had previously engaged in skirmishes with the energetic Percy Nobbs over the right to combine teaching with architectural practice, was eager to hire him. Traquair kept his word; the McGill University flag and its library bookplate are the only public reminders, on campus, of his talent as a designer.


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The formative and lasting influence on Traquair of his parents had awakened a life-long polymath curiosity evident in his Canadian career. Perhaps the most significant skill Traquair had brought with him to North America was his experience under the auspices of Sir Rowand Anderson (1834 – 1921) and the National Art Survey of Scotland (1896). Employed to measure and draw medieval Scottish buildings, many of which had largely been forgotten, Traquair later used his experience as a core of methodology he imparted to his Canadian students as he involved them in the first comprehensive survey of the architecture of Nouvelle France. Traquair’s other formative experience, as a scholarship student at the British School of Archaeology of Athens had also formed th e focus of his work in Canada. In a series of articles Traquair repeatedly exhorted Canadians to pay more attention to the study of old buildings. Following the Great War he began to publish systematic accounts and measured drawings of the religious and domestic Quebec architecture, first in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects and later, in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Altogether, between 1925 and 1939, he published twenty-seven reports including several joint studies with the noted anthropologist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) and with Gordon Antoine Neilson (1901-1942), a great-grandson of the publisher of the Quebec Gazette from 1797 to 1848.

The extensive visual documentation that accompanied Traquair’s reports on historic Quebec architecture was derived from two principal sources which today serve as a nucleus of the John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection; one was an ensemble of historic photographs dating from around 1880 that he had acquired for McGill and that he continued to enrich with his own examples throughout his university tenure; the second source derived from the surveys of historic buildings that he conducted with his students between 1924 and 1930. Each survey consisted of photographs and a “set of complete measured drawings of a building, with all its important decorative features, moldings and ornaments drawn to scale large enough to allow comparison with other examples.” These studies later formed the nucleus for Traquair’s most enduring work: The Old Architecture of Quebec: A Study of the Buildings Erected in New France from the Earliest Explorers to the Middle of the 19th Century (Macmillan, 1947). In addition to his work on architecture and ornamental wood carving, Traquair concerned himself with the study of silver and, to lesser extent furniture, tracing the migration of French craftsmen to Canada. While his work on furniture remained unfinished and only survives in the form of a manuscript (in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), Traquair’s published book The Old Silver of Quebec (Macmillan, 1940), based on systematic survey of artifacts from seventy seven Quebec parishes, as well as museum and private collections still constitutes an authoritative, if flawed book, on the subject.

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The importance of Traquair’s example as an educator, architectural historian and bibliophile, among other, is best exemplified is his archive at CAC of more than 10,000 photographs and drawings of Quebec historic buildings, many destroyed in all but the images he had preserved.

(Irena Murray, “A Scout of the Past: Ramsay Traquair and the Legacy of the National Art Survey of Scotland in Quebec.” Paper presented at the colloquium Character and Circumstance: The Scotts in Montreal and Canada, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal, QC, May 2003)

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