Gibbs, May (1877–1969)

views updated

Gibbs, May (1877–1969)

Illustrator and author, especially of fantasy for children, who was one of the first creators of a popular Australian imagery. Pronunciation: Gibbs with a hard "G." Born Cecilia May Gibbs on January 17, 1877, in Lower Sydenham, Kent, England; died in Sydney, Australia, on November 27, 1969; daughter of Herbert William Gibbs (an artist), and Cecilia May Rogers (an amateur artist); attended Miss Best's School for Ladies (Perth); Art Gallery of Western Australia; Cope and Nichol Art School (London); Chelsea Polytechnic (London); Henry Blackburn School for Black and White Artists (London); married Bertram James Ossoli Kelly, on April 17, 1919.

Arrived in Australia (1881); studied in London; published first book (1912); moved to Sydney (1913); published eight books (between 1918–53); published weekly comic strips (1924–67); published last book (1953).

Major works written and illustrated: Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918); Little Ragged Blossom and More About Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1920); Little Obelia and Further Adventures of Ragged Blossom, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1921); The Story of Nuttybub and Nittersing (Melbourne: Osboldson, 1923); Two Little Gumnuts—Chucklebud and Wunkydoo, Their Strange Adventures (Melbourne: Osboldson, 1924); Scotty in Gumnut Land (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941); Mr. and Mrs. Bear and Friends (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1943); Prince Dande Lion… A Garden Whim Wham (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1953).

May Gibbs was an unconventional woman for the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. Unmarried until late in life, childless and unconcerned with the usual scope of women's affairs, she possessed a passion for drawing and was determined to forge a career in the competitive, largely male, field of illustration. She was successful. With a childlike quality, she reveled in imagining and creating, but when met with opposition she stuck solidly to her own opinions. She was also a shrewd negotiator.

Significantly, Gibbs' passion was not only for drawing; she was also concerned with the Australian environment. As she recognized the ecological threats, she directed her stories to teach her readers a sympathy and understanding for the natural world. After a life of drawing Australian plants and animals, Gibbs was able to encapsulate an essence of the Australian environment and produce, for the first time, a complete fantasy world based upon it. One the eve of World War I, Gibbs developed an amusing set of characters—sturdy, down-to-earth creatures of the gum trees—and applied them to bookmarks and magazine covers, and finally a series of stories. Somewhat bereft of national symbols, Australians grasped onto these "gumnut" characters and have delighted in them ever since.

May Gibbs was born on January 17, 1877, in Lower Sydenham, Kent, England, and spent her first four years in the comfortable, loving company of parents, older brother, and extended family in Surrey. Her parents, who had met at the Slade School of Art in London, were both skillful artists. Though the couple would later have two more sons, it was May, their first daughter, who followed most closely, and successfully, their fascination with art and illustration.

In 1881, the family decided to try their luck in the relatively new colony of Australia. Property was cheap and the climate was seen to be healthier and sunnier than in England. They sailed for three months to the tiny settlement of Port Adelaide, in South Australia. After a few distressing months clearing land, building a hut, and trying to farm in poor soil, the Gibbs family moved to an already established homestead in the outskirts of Port Adelaide.

Taught at home by her parents while her brother was sent to school, May was given a generous helping of artistic and literary instruction. She had a ready interest in drawing, an interest that was encouraged by her parents' enthusiasm. In a 1968 oral-history interview, Gibbs recalled: "I could draw almost as soon as I could talk and.… I used to lie down in the grass so that my eyes were on the same level amongst the grass stalks as the ants; and I naturally loved all those things."

When May was about eight, the family sailed north to Western Australia, first to a rural property and later to the Swan River, near the growing township of Perth. She continued her drawing, sketching the new range of flora and fauna, and was encouraged when a page of her sketches won a competition and was published in the W.A. Bulletin in 1889. She joined the Wilgie Sketching Club that her father had helped to establish, constructed caricatures as her father was doing for newspapers, and took over part of his studio at the top of their large, rambling house. "My interest in drawing at this time was everything—everything I saw," she recalled, "and I was particularly keen on making fun of things; and when I was old enough I used to do caricatures of everybody and they were really, although I shouldn't say it, tremendously good."

During the mid-1890s, Gibbs attended classes in art at the new Art Gallery of Western Australia. Her teachers were keen for her to extend her drawing skills by going to England for art classes. Though May was also eager, her parents felt differently, knowing how precarious an artist's career—let alone a woman artist's—could be. Instead, Gibbs was expected to settle down and start looking for a spouse. Despite the pressure, in 1900, at age 23, she made the first of her three trips to London. On each sojourn, she studied and drew obsessively. Seven hours of drawing a day, six days a week, was standard at the art schools she attended, then on to life drawing at night. Gibbs was restless on Sundays, painting and sketching and anxious to get back to school. She also spent time looking for illustration commissions, sometimes successfully.

Each time Gibbs returned to Australia it was to recover the health she had crushed by overwork, self-neglect, and the general damp and smog of London. While convalescing in Perth, restless under the controlling hand of her mother, she concentrated on developing stories

and illustrations for children's books and tried to find publishers. But she was attempting to break into a closely knit field that was predominated by men, and commissions remained fitful.

On her second trip to London in 1904, age 27, Gibbs concentrated on black-and-white line drawing—a media that had only become available to illustrators since the 1870s thanks to the development of photographic reproduction, ending their reliance on wood cuts. The popularity and status of this new pen-and-ink medium as a form of art and illustration was rising rapidly. Gibbs attended drawing classes at the Chelsea Polytechnic and Henry Blackburn's School for Black and White Artists, obtaining first class passes. Her drawings from this period are confident and technically impressive, lucidly conveying human form and character.

While British publishers declined to publish Gibbs' Australian children's stories, claiming they needed English settings to ensure good sales, one publisher, George Harrap and Company, was impressed by the wide range of well-developed artistic skills demonstrated in her portfolio. Harrap gave her three historical novels to illustrate: Wilmot Buxton's The Struggle with the Crown, Estelle Ross ' Barons and Kings, and Susan Cunnington 's Georgian England. In between intensive research on early England, Gibbs recast her Australian "Mimie and Wog" story, setting the action around the London rooftops with personified fog and gruff chimney pots forming some of the new characters. Titled About Us, the story was published in England and America in 1912. She also secured commissions with the National Union of Women's Suffragette Societies, illustrating their public debates.

May Gibbs… mapped out a world of her own—and conquered it completely.

Advertiser, Adelaide, 1917

One of the English suffragist society members was Rene Heames , a socialist and boarder in the same lodging house as Gibbs. They became firm friends and remained so for life. By the end of Gibbs' third stay in London, from 1909 to 1913, she was battling her health. Her relatives encouraged her to try again to establish a career back in Australia, this time in Sydney. Gibbs liked the idea, and both she and Heames set sail for Australia early in 1913. Sydney was a propitious move. As the burgeoning publishing and population center of the continent, the demand for illustrators ran high. Gibbs, at last, was able to find work immediately. Illustrating story books, a New South Wales school magazine, textbooks, and 25 covers for the Sydney Mail newspaper, she had finally fomented, at age 35, a demand for her skills.

Throughout 1913, Gibbs worked steadily on these commissions in her city studio, occasionally taking time off to walk in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. Commissioned to design a bookmark, she had one shaped and painted like a eucalyptus leaf, but something was missing. That something woke her up one night. She added a plump cherub with long-lashed, wide eyes, peeking over the top of the leaf, wearing a round, eucalyptus seedpod cap. From behind, tiny triangular wings stuck out from its shoulder blades, and its feet were tucked up beneath its bare bottom. Sydney-siders bought the bookmarks as quickly as Gibbs painted them. The print run was just as successful.

For the cover of The Lone Hand, she multiplied this little creature to make a cluster of them clinging to a bunch of gum leaves. The paper's editors and reviewers were impressed. Gibbs then published booklets that extended the idea of creatures related to native plants, dressing them in a particular plant's petals and leaves: Gum-Nut Babies, Gum-Blossom Babies, Wattle Babies, Boronia Babies, and so on. Soon after the booklets were published in 1917, a reviewer for the Sydney Evening News wrote: "These little creatures belong to the same category as the leprechauns of Irish fairy tales. The artist gives a quaint individuality to her little people and, if the world is not getting too materialistic, she may perhaps be laying the foundation of a new Australian folklore."

The uniquely Australian quality of Gibbs' creations was what reviewers commented on repeatedly. Although there were high-brow representations of Australia in art galleries and libraries, Australians lacked an accessible, comfortable imagery with which they could readily identify. May Gibbs gave Australians images of recognizable native flora and fauna co-existing in a realistic habitat with characters who, though imaginary, were plausible creatures of the harsh Australian environment. They were robust and matter-of-fact, a long way from the floating, thinly fragile fairies of European folklore.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, in which Australia—as part of the British Empire—was intimately involved, unified the Australian public in the face of a common enemy. It was perfect timing for Gibbs' pictures. As historian Marcie Muir has pointed out, those at home were looking for patriotic images that could communicate sentiments and bring some humor to cheer the spirits. Scores of Gibbs' amusing postcard vignettes of domesticated kookaburras and gumnuts dressed as soldiers were sent to the Australians at the front lines in Europe and the Middle East.

Happy with her newfound characters, Gibbs now turned her efforts to creating adventure stories for them. "I thought to myself 'I'll make the pictures first, and write the stories round them, because the pictures will sell the book,'" she said. "The stories just rolled out of me, I had plenty of them, I'd no trouble at all." By the end of 1918, after much negotiating with Angus and Robertson, she secured a publishing agreement that suited her and completed The Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

The story was set in the branches and cluttered floor of a eucalyptus forest. It was a world full of two-inch-high gumnut people, of all different professions, living in towns and cities amongst the forest, or "bush," with the animals—friendly and otherwise. Part of the appeal for children lay in the realistic, gripping depiction of a natural world with predators and prey; Mrs. Snake and her gang of Banksia men both terrified and fascinated their audience. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and the further adventures she published in the years following, were filled with pictures: vibrant color plates and countless line drawings set within the text pages. They were funny, often satirical, scenes of a well-thought-out world, full of detail.

Gibbs wrote well, using as much imagination in the construction of speech for her characters as she had in drawing them. The gumnuts, birds, possums, and snakes spoke with expressions picked straight from the bush—"give me the twigs of the whole thing," "he's deadibones," "smoke and burn him," "Gum it all!"—a mix of invention and complete disregard for grammar that delighted child readers. "Deadibones" is one of many of Gibbsian words that entered the Australian language.

The first page of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie features the two gumnuts scrawling on a leaf banner, "Humans: please be kind to all Bush

Creatures and don't pull flowers up by the roots." Clearly committed to educating against cruelty to animals and the needless destruction of flora and fauna, Gibbs' entire approach—giving readers the names and exact appearance of native flora and fauna, mirroring how animals tended to behave, showing how both animals and plants could be hurt by humans—appears to have been directed to this end. She gives the reader a view of the world from the animals' perspective, looking out at humans with their traps and cages. At a time when koalas had been hunted almost to extinction and so much of the continent's forests had been cleared, Gibbs' message was a much-needed one. There had long been groups who sought to educate against the wanton destruction of Australia's resources—The Australian Forest League, the Wattle Society, the government's Botanical Gardens—but few of their publications had the appeal of Gibbs' work.

The first three editions of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie sold out at lightning speed. Within a year, 14,414 copies had sold in Australia and 700 in England, and the book has remained continuously in print ever since. Gibbs was now firmly established—along with Beatrix Potter , Norman Lindsay, and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite —as one of a new group: the writer-illustrators.

In 1918, during a stay at Perth when she was 42, Gibbs met J.O. Kelly, a mining manager. A firm friendship blossomed not long after, and they decided to marry in Perth at Easter, 1919. "He and I were such tremendous pals," she said, J.O. "was always immaculately dressed, quite unconscious of himself, beautifully spoken and friends with everybody.… He encouraged me tremendously with my work." J.O. and Gibbs settled in Neutral Bay, Sydney. After a few months, they invited Rene Heames and another friend, Rachel Matthews , to come and share their home, so Gibbs continued to enjoy their company and support.

J.O. gave up his previous job and took on, to Gibbs' delight, the more mundane business matters involved with her career, though he was not prepared to go to battle with publishers. Though she found it distasteful, Gibbs found herself wrangling over royalties, paper choice, and printing quality. "I had a very decided feeling about doing things," she said; she refused to be taken advantage of or to have her work altered. A skillful negotiator, Gibbs managed for many years, writes Maureen Walsh , to have publishers agree to a 15% royalty, surpassing the standard 10% being granted to the great pillars of Australian literature: Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, C.J. Dennis, and Norman Lindsay.

Because children had been writing to publishers Angus and Robertson asking for more adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, in 1920 Gibbs gave them Little Ragged Blossom and More about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The story was set largely under the sea with an entertaining cast of fish folk going about the dubious ways of human folk. These characters continued to delight their audience—child and adult alike—in Little Obelia. "May Gibbs brings the breath of the bush," wrote a reviewer for the Melbourne Age, "the stirring of gumleaves and the twittering of feathered inhabitants. One loses the reality of trains, desk and the countinghouse."

Gibbs had plenty of ideas for further stories and products to which the gumnut and blossom characters could be applied. She produced posters, handkerchiefs, calendars, badges, dolls, fabric, pottery, and her ideas did not end there. "I used to have a little sketch book in one pocket and a pencil in the other," she said in 1968, "and would go 'round gardening, and that's how I got my best ideas, out in the open. Then I'd go into the studio and measure my board and start drawing them, draw onto the board and then ink them in, and send them across to have them printed, and there they were."

It was her unique stories and her witty, confident line drawings that brought Gibbs most acclaim. She also sketched portraits on commission. In 1917, one writer for the Sun described them as "of a remarkable standard, the artist reproducing a fleeting mood or expression in an exquisite water color that seems more nearly to reveal the soul of the sitter than any more set styles of portraiture." Nevertheless, when in 1921 and 1922 she submitted some watercolor portraits to art society exhibitions, reviewers were critical, calling them "unfinished." Gibbs vowed she would never again submit to art societies.

Keeping to her formula of a book a year for the Christmas market, Gibbs produced Nuttybub and Nittersing in 1923 and Chucklebud and Wunkydoo in 1924, both with a new set of bushland characters. It was also in 1924 that she pursued and gained entry into the sphere of newspaper comic strips. She drew and wrote, in verse, episodes in the precarious life of two inquisitive gumnuts, Bib and Bub, and their bush friends and foes—each week's episode tending to revolve around who was eating whom. These were the first cartoons produced in Australia for young children. Before long they were being used in schools as reading lessons and, as Walsh points out, would have been an entertaining source of reading for children in families where virtually the only bodies of written material in the house were newspapers.

The 1930s bought hard times to the Gibbs enterprise as it did for all, and the sales of her work dropped. A friend went to America in 1932 to promote Gibbs' books but failed to find willing publishers. "Australia's depression," her friend wrote back, "is kindergarten compared with here." The depression had a similar effect in England. J.O. fumed over it in a letter to Gibbs' parents: "The beasts of publishers in England are too narrow minded to embrace Australia.… What a kid likes, he very seldom gets a chance to say. It appears to us that the stereotyped fairy with butterfly wings and the dear old fatuous stories appeal to the publishers. Why, they even seem to object to the fact that the 'Gumnuts' are unclothed!"

Ironically, Australian material was becoming harder to sell in Australia itself, due to foreign syndication, a certain vogue for things American, and local publishers preferring cheap imports. Although alarmed, Gibbs, with typical steadfastness, refused to change her style, and she defended her stand to one of the papers who sought to reduce her pay: "I am the only feature Artist exploiting purely Australasian matter and fauna. I have maintained this style of work as I feel the children of Australasia should have the opportunity of becoming familiar with their own animals." At least Gibbs knew, from the "wealth of correspondence" sent by children, that her audience appreciated her work.

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, her husband died of heart trouble, marking the beginning of a sad decade for Gibbs. When her father, who had been one of her dearest friends, her teacher, and guide, died in 1940, Gibbs was increasingly alone with her garden and the Scottish terriers she doted on.

She kept herself busy, incorporating wartime rationing and long waiting lines in her comic strips, making jokes of frustrations. By 1941, with encouragement from Heames, Gibbs had written another book, using her dogs as models for Scotty in Gumnut Land. It was refreshingly successful. In 1943, now 66, she produced Mr. and Mrs. Bear and Friends and then her last book, Prince Dande Lion… A Garden Whim Wham, which was, she said: "For older children, and I hope, some quite old ones." The story was bursting with puns and gave life and character to flowers—not wild, but garden variety. This was fitting, for Gibbs now rarely ventured out of her own house and garden.

In 1955, now nearly 80, Gibbs was still drawing the Bib and Bub cartoon each week. With her perpetual enthusiasm and drive, she continued to look for new projects, write in her notebook, and construct humorous verses. To her delight, she was awarded an MBE on June 9, 1955, in recognition of her contribution to children's literature. In 1967, at age 90, after fighting her way back to mobility and memory after a stroke the year before, she finally decided to submit her last Bib and Bub comic strip. It had run, with only one short break, for 43 years. Gibbs refused to accept the "charity" of a pension and managed without until March 1969, when the Commonwealth Literary Fund realized her straitened situation and gave her an annuity.

An unfinished letter, penned just before she died in Sydney on November 27, 1969, shows Gibbs busy with gardening, the housework, and pleased with her special recipe for irresistible apple pie. She had dealt with the distribution of her estate and the ownership of her works. "It must have been a toss-up whether her estate went to children or conservationists," said one of her childhood fans. It went to the United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF), the New South Wales (NSW) Society for Crippled Children, and the Spastic Centre of NSW. Another legacy of her works, the understanding and regard for the bush that she has inspired and continues to inspire in generations of children, has gone to the conservationists, and the plants and animals that surround them still.

An unconventional woman, May Gibbs was able to produce works that were unconventional enough to appeal to children. Those works helped give expression to the feeling of Australians for their country at a time when little else was available, and continue to do so.


Cooper, Nora. "A Cottage for Fairy Fancies," in The Australian Home Beautiful. United Press, Melbourne, March 12, 1926, pp. 17–20.

Frizell, Helen. "May Gibbs—Lover of Children and Australia's Bush," in Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney, November 29, 1969, p. 6.

Lang, J. Pathway to Magic: The Story of May Gibbs in Western Australia. Perth: Challenge Bank, 1991.

Marshall, Marie. "The Art of May Gibbs," in Australasian Book News and Literary Journal. Sydney, September 1947, pp. 153–154.

Muir, Marcie. A History of Children's Book Illustrators. South Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977.

"Queen of the Gum-Nuts," in The Sun (Sunday edition), Sydney, March 11, 1917, p. 14.

Saw, Ron. "Boyhood not the same without the Banksia Men," in Daily Telegraph. Sydney, June 9, 1970, p. 10.

Saxby, H.M. A History of Australian Children's Literature 1841–1941. Sydney: Wentworth Books, 1971.

Sayers, Andrew. Drawing in Australia: Drawings, Water-colours, Pastels and Collages from the 1770s to the 1980s. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Walsh, Maureen. "Gibbs, Herbert William and Cecilia May," in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 8. Edited by B. Nairn and G. Searle. Clayton Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1981, pp. 644–646.

——. May Gibbs, Mother of the Gumnuts; Her Life and Work. North Ryde: Cornstalk Publications, 1985.

suggested reading:

Holden, Robert. A Golden Age, Vol 1: Visions of Fantasy, Australia's Fantasy Illustrators: Their Lives and Works. Pymble NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1992.

McVitty, Walter. Authors and Illustrators of Australian Children's Books. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

related media:

"Conversation with May Gibbs," recording, 1968, DeB 356, National Library of Australia, Canberra.


Original works, illustrated books, and ephemera, located in the James Hardie Library of Australian Fine Arts; May Gibbs Papers, located in the State Library of NSW, Sydney.

Jenny Newell , research and editing assistant at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia