May Gibbs: Iconic Australian Illustrator

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

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 contributor 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 an 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.

May Gibbs style was highly imaginative, original and uniquely Australian, but she was also an astute observer of the world around her. With so much influence from Britain in Australia at that time, especially with children’s literature, Gibbs’ work was like a breath of fresh air. Australian children now had a national identity. Her work owes little or nothing to overseas inspiration (Pownall, cited in Saxby, 1969, p. 136). Gibbs brought the beauty and uniqueness of the bush and all its creatures right into everyone’s lounge rooms. It was fantasy and realism all in one, with wonderful humour for all ages. Holden sums this up well with his comment, an extraordinary interplay of botanical fact and bushland fantasy (1992, p. 103). For Gibbs’ had obviously studied, observed and truly fallen in love with, not only the creatures, but the bush itself. Her Nuts and Blossoms, were cute, cuddly, adventurous, brave and kind, just the sort of characters that were needed after the harsh realities of war. As Holden comments (1992, p. 95), they have a robust quality which relates well to the perils of the Australian Bush. Gibbs observed closely the features and habits of each creature and cleverly and humorously included these in her stories. Indeed May Gibbs displayed knowledge of the bush and its creatures that was really quite astounding for its time. Insects with peculiar features each were given a special purpose, Mr. Bullant’s pincers were perfect for removing teeth and ‘A refreshment stall’ shows how useful the unusual features of one beetle can be! In the ocean, Mr. Seahorse was left to mind the children, fish really did attend schools and oyster beds made for perfect hospital beds.

 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.

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 ( 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.

For more biographies on Australian children’s book authors and illustrators check out the Australian Children’s Literature website:


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