May Gibbs was born in 1877 in England, but migrated to Australia with her family in 1881. While she grew up in Perth, it was to Sydney that she was eventually drawn, choosing to live out her days in Neutral Bay. Gibbs was surrounded by art from an early age, with both her parents amateur artists and their house frequented by artists and musicians. Her career began in 1901, when a number of illustrations were accepted by various magazines and newspapers. On a trip to England, she succeeded in obtaining work as illustrator for Georgian England and The Struggle with the Crown, for Harrop in London, but her Australian stories were not accepted. She returned to England three times before settling in Sydney, when real success finally came her way.
Gibbs was a regular contributer to School Magazine; illustrated the front cover of Amy Mack's Scribbling Sue; and created covers for The Sydney Mail and Lone Hand. It was her cover illustration, of the January 1914 edition of Lone Hand, which proved the turning point in her career. Here Australia was introduced to her now famous, gumnut babies. May Gibbs had founded a whole new Australian identity. By 1918, May Gibbs had become a national celebrity. She had created an entirely new Australian fantasy world, devoid of the English goblins, fairies and elves and was consequently in great demand.
Since eucalypts and banksias, not to mention all of the bush creatures, are found right across Australia, Gibbs had created images that appealed to the entire nation. Seed pod hats, gum blossom skirts, gumleaf and sea shell houses, leaf boats and stick chairs, set imaginations running wild. Children everywhere couldn't help but wonder when they saw such things, whether Gumnut Babies really did live there, especially when they could actually see their scribbly writing on the trees. Gibbs took what every child could easily find and gave it a fantasy life of its own. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, visit the dentist, ride on trams, go to parties, take part in sporting events and visit the seaside. The Nuts and Blossoms had all the adventures and independence every child longs for. At the same time, however, they met with many perils as well. These of course came in the form of snakes and greedy fish and were personified in The Big Bad Banksiamen. The Big Bad Banksiamen, with their all seeing eyes and hairy bodies, terrified children everywhere, to the point where parents were even known to complain!
Publishers, of course, used her talents to the full, especially during the war. Large numbers of patriotic postcards, calendars, book marks and booklets were produced, all to boost morale and provide some humour for the troops. 1916 saw the creation of her Gumnut booklets, which were a very clever, innovative move by publishers at the time, since they were cheap to produce and affordable to the general public. Very different from the elaborate limited edition fairy books by Outhwaite, which also appeared at this time. The booklets had wide appeal, both to Australia and the troops overseas. They introduced many of her now famous characters - Gumnut Babies, Gum Blossom Babies, Boronia Babies and Flannel Flower Babies, to name just a few. May Gibbs therefore, was a icon herself, even before the famous Snugglepot and Cuddlepie appeared. Needless to say, when Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was released, in 1918, it became an instant success.
While the majority of her works were in sepia pen and ink, she also worked with carefully chosen water colours, which were very true to life. The gum leaves, flowers and seed pods were almost exactly that of the real thing, as were the skin tones of the little bare bottomed Nuts. The full colour illustrations appeared in soft, earthy tones and were warm and appealing to both adults and children alike. Unfortunately later copies fell victim to post-war printing, and were produced in rather garish colours on poor quality paper. The 1940 edition of The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, came with the following -
Her characters and their adventures are still a household name in Australia with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie loved by all ages. Her stories contain non-stop action, as our little heroes meet with an over abundance of perils through the dangers of living in the Australian bush. An overall theme of conservation, clearly stated on the very first page, displays Gibbs' feelings for the bush - Humans please be kind to all Bush Creatures and don't pull flowers up by the roots.
Conservation and care for our environment are the overriding themes of many of her books. The good folk are always caring for even the tiniest of creatures, while the Banksiamen stomp all over everything. Humans are shown in all their glory as poor grey Possum gets caught in the terrible trap, but thankfully Gibbs shows us there is good and bad in every species as another human rescues him instead. Friendship, courage, the rewards of sacrificing oneself for friends and especially kindness are all strong themes, with continuous lessons given throughout. Consequences and the law of cause and effect are made blatantly obvious, with simple comments such as the one given to the indignant Mrs. Snake, You eat birds, so birds eat you.
Her great love of the bush and its creatures is apparent on every page and with every illustration. By directly addressing the child reader throughout, Gibbs created a cosy and intimate rapport, allowing the perfect atmosphere for storytelling. Adults too are well entertained, with Gibbs’ clever use of the language and indeed the creation of her own language. Youth nowadays refer to things as being cool or excellent, Gibbs instead settled on juicy, gummy or tree top! Her word plays and puns are clever and amusing, Cuddlepie’s conversation with the conductor is a particular delight -
Humour was one of May Gibbs' clever devices to evoke a response from each of her readers. The funny antics of all her fantasy creations were loved and appreciated by children, while her little digs at society and humankind, brought a smile to adults everywhere. Calendar pictures, such as the one that appears in Holden's book (1992, p. 100) is quite a delight. One lone Nut appears, dressed only in a gum leaf, with the caption, There's nothing on these days - nothing to speak of! Her underwater world, brought more humour and plays on words with each fish given very human like traits, which match their real life habits and appearance. 'The Flower Stall', shows the charming Ann Chovy all goodness and mercy, but John Dory, looked just like a hideous old human. When Snugglepot and Ragged Blossom meets Ann Chovy, they are delighted that they never have to wash, something all children would relate to, but of course we have to scrape she adds. They also attend a dance, to which all the Fish Folk go, Most of the dresses had beautiful finish Gibbs tells us, which means trimmed beautifully with fins - truly delightful use of the English language.
The success of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was followed shortly afterwards by Little Ragged Blossom (1920), Little Obelia (1921) and The Story of Nuttybub and Nittersing (1923). 1925, saw Gibbs launch a new career as a cartoonist, Bib and Bub appeared as a weekly comic strip and later Tiggy Touchwood, which would run for over forty years!
Like many artists of the 1920's she was influenced by the art nouveau movement, which produced an extensive use of line and character positioning. Though Gibbs' works are much busy than the typical art nouveau style, still this influence can be seen, especially with the title pages of each book. Vignettes, are a typical feature of many of Gibbs' works and shows what a prolific artist she really was. Not only did the forty years of comic strips produce over 2000 illustrations, but each book in itself contains literally dozens of tiny illustrations to add to and extend the text as well as providing fun and decoration.
In 1919, she married Bertram James Ossoli Kelly who took over the management of her finances and whom she later built a house with. This was her beloved Nutcote in Neutral Bay in Sydney, which they moved into in 1925 (http://www.maygibbs.com.au/). Here she lived and worked until her death in 1969. Today Nutcote is considered a national treasure and has been beautifully preserved as a National Museum. Gibbs became a virtual recluse here although she continued to produce an astounding number of illustrations and comic strips, as well as another eight books. Finally in 1955, May Gibbs was awarded an MBE for her services to Australian literature.
List of Works