May Gibbs

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May Gibbs
May Gibbs.jpg
1916 photographic portrait
Born 17 January 1877
Kent, England
Died 27 November 1969 (age 92)
Sydney, Australia
Pen name Stan Cottman, Blob
Occupation Author, illustrator
Nationality English Australian
Period 1913–
Genre Children's literature


Cecilia May Gibbs MBE (17 January 1877 – 27 November 1969), publishing under the name May Gibbs, was an English Australian children's author, illustrator, and cartoonist. She is best known for her gumnut babies (also known as "bush babies" or "bush fairies"[1]), and the book Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

Early Life[edit]

Gibbs was born in Sydenham, Kent, in the United Kingdom,[2] to Herbert William Gibbs (1852 – 4 October 1940) and Cecilia Gibbs, née Rogers (c. 1851 – 26 March 1941), who were both talented artists. She was their second child, and as she was named after her mother, had the nickname "Mamie".[3]

The family planned to move to South Australia to set up a farm in 1879 due to Herbert's failing eyesight, the result of a boyhood injury.[4] However, as Gibbs had caught the measles, her father and uncle George Gordon Gibbs (c. 1860 – 24 August 1921) went to Australia, leaving her mother in England to care for the children.[5]

On 1 June 1881, the Gibbs brothers arrived in South Australia, and began to look for the land arranged for them by a relative of theirs. Over the next few months, the brothers became disillusioned with the land.[6] Cecilia discovered that she was pregnant again, and decided to make the voyage to Australia with her children. Despite her parents' dismay, Cecilia and the children left, and her third child, Ivan, was born at sea.[7]

A drought in the area caused the family to move again, to Norwood.[8] In 1885, the family moved again to a farm property in Harvey, Western Australia.[9] At age eight, Gibbs was given a pony named Brownie by her father. May enjoyed exploring the bush riding her pony, and began to paint and write about the bush at this time.[10] This period of her childhood, and her imaginative interpretation of the bush, was formative in the development of the anthropomorphic bush setting found in her work.[11] When Gibbs was 10, the family moved to Perth,[12] where she was educated at Amy Best's girls' school in Perth.[13]

A "Banksia Man" abducting Little Ragged Blossom, from Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.
Nutcote, in Kurraba Point (Sydney), where May spent much of her life.[14]
A replica of the Stirling Cottage, Harvey (Western Australia), in which May Gibbs lived.[15]
Derry, Neutral Bay, where May Gibbs lived for a time before she lived at Nutcote.

In 1894, Gibbs attended an artists’ camp set up by HC Prinsep, who along with her father, was one of the founding members of the Wilgie Sketching Club (later the West Australian Society of Artists)[16] at 'Undercliffe' in Greenmount, Western Australia.[17] That year she began painting in oils "anything at all – trying to get beyond the sticky stage… painting plaques to hang on walls and earning enough to keep myself in all but chemist bills", Gibbs stated.[18] She also painted scenery and made set designs for local amateur productions.[19] In the mid-1890s she was attending classes at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.[20] Gibbs was published for the first time in the Christmas edition of the W.A. Bulletin, 1889.[21]

Study in England[edit]

Between 1890 and 1913, Gibbs made several trips to England, primarily to study art. She spent a year at the South Kensington Art School run by Arthur Stockdale Cope and Erskine Nicol, and attended classes at the Chelsea Polytechnic (now Chelsea College of Science and Technology), studying under Augustus John and Ernest Borough Johnson. She graduated in 1905 with first class passes in every category. Gibbs art education also included ‘half-hours’ at the studios of Victoria and Albert Museum where students could draw the nude for free,[22] and a term at the School for Black and White Artists run by Henry Blackburn, editor of London Society. During her time in England, Gibbs completed assignments as an illustrator for George G. Harrap and Co., published a fantasy about London chimneys, About Us (1912), and drew cartoons for the Common Cause, published by the Suffragettes.[13]

Early Work[edit]

On her return trips home to Australia, Gibbs produced fashion illustrations for The West Australian and cartoons for the Western Australian magazine Social Kodak. She became a regular contributor to Western Mail (Western Australia).[11] Her sketches, illustrations, cartoons and caricatures appeared on the cover and throughout the newspaper between 1904-1908. Notably. Gibbs illustrated an article written by Senator Agnes Robertson on the women’s rights movement 'Women’s Position in the State’ by 'One of Them’.[23] Gibbs is seen as one of Australia’s first resident professional woman cartoonist and caricaturist and the first Australian woman known to have drawn local political cartoons. "May Gibbs was a pioneer for female cartoonists, especially since she was successful,” noted renowned Australian cartoonist Lindsay Foyle.[24] In 1907 she exhibited five watercolours in the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work at Melbourne.[22]

Return to Australia[edit]

Due to ill health, Gibbs returned to Australia from England in 1913, and settled in Sydney. She took up residence at Derry, a heritage listed semi-detached house in Neutral Bay. 1913 also marked the first public appearance of the gumnut babies on the front cover of The Missing Button, by Ethel Turner, which Gibbs had illustrated. She produced postcards depicting gumnut babies in uniform to support Australia's role in World War One at this time.[25] Gibbs' first book about the gumnut babies, titled Gumnut Babies, was published in 1916. It was soon followed, in 1918, by her most famous work, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.[26] Gibbs wrote many books on the theme of the gumnut babies.

Gibbs married Bertram James Ossoli Kelly, a mining agent, on 17 April 1919, whom she met during a visit to Perth.[13] In 1925 they moved into their purpose built home Nutcote, then in Neutral Bay (now part of Kurraba Point), in Sydney.[27]

Gibbs continued to write and illustrate children's books, publishing Little Ragged Blossom in 1920 and Little Obelia the following year. In addition to her work illustrating and writing, Gibbs also maintained two comic strips, Bib and Bub 1924–1967 and Tiggy Touchwood 1925–1931, in opposition newspapers. Tiggy Touchwood appeared in the Sunday Sun under the signature "Stan Cottman". The comic strips were published in newspapers in most Australian states and also in New Zealand. In 1923 she published Nuttybub and Nittersing and in 1929 Two Little Gum-Nuts. All her books have been reprinted numerous times and five cartoon books of Bib and Bub have been published.

Death and Legacy[edit]

May Gibbs died in Sydney on 27 November 1969, and was cremated at Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney.[28] Gibbs bequeathed the copyright from the designs of her bush characters and her stories to Northcott Disability Services (formerly The NSW Society for Crippled Children) and Cerebral Palsy Alliance (formerly The Spastic Centre of NSW).[29] The residue of her estate was left to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.[13] Through her foresight, May Gibbs has helped the charities assist thousands of children with disabilities and their families throughout NSW. For more information on usage of May Gibbs' works and copyright please contact Lucy Brown at Northcott Disability Services on +61 (0)2 9890 0100. -->

In 1985 a postage stamp honouring Gibbs, or her best known creations, was issued by Australia Post as part of a set of five commemorating children's books.[30]

On 3 December 2016, the State Library of New South Wales opened an exhibition of Gibbs’ artwork to mark the 100 years anniversary of the publication of Gumnut Babies.[31]


  • About Us (1912)
  • Gumnut Babies (1916)
  • Gumblossom Babies (1916)
  • Boronia Babies (1917)
  • Flannel Flowers and Other Bush Babies (1917)
  • Wattle Babies (1918)
  • Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918)
  • Little Ragged Blossom (1920)
  • Little Obelia (1921)
  • Nuttybub and Nittersing (1923)
  • Chucklebud and Wunkydoo (1924)
  • Bib and Bub: Their Adventures (1925)
  • The Further Adventures of Bib and Bub (1927)
  • More Funny Stories about Old Friends Bib and Bub (1928)
  • Bib and Bub in Gumnut Town aka Two Little Gum-Nuts (1929)
  • The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1940)
  • Scotty in Gumnut Land (1941)
  • Mr and Mrs Bear and Friends (1943)
  • Prince Dande Lion (1953)


  1. ^ 1414, scheme=AGLSTERMS.AglsAgent; corporateName=State Library of New South Wales; address=Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW 2000; contact=+61 2 9273 (2016-11-23). "100th Anniversary for May Gibbs". Retrieved 2017-01-18. 
  2. ^ Walsh, Maureen. Cecilia May Gibbs. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University – via Australian Dictionary of Biography. 
  3. ^ Walsh p 10
  4. ^ Walsh, p 11
  5. ^ Walsh, p12
  6. ^ Walsh, p 13-14
  7. ^ Walsh, p. 15
  8. ^ Walsh, p17-18
  9. ^ Walsh, p.19
  10. ^ Walsh, p 24-27
  11. ^ a b Seddon, George (1997). "Cuddlepie and other surrogates". Landprints: reflections on place and landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 113–118. ISBN 0-521-65999-X. 
  12. ^ Walsh, p29
  13. ^ a b c d "Gibbs, Cecilia May (1877–1969)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1981 Archived 13 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  14. ^ "May Gibbs' Nutcote". 
  15. ^ "Stirling Cottage". Harvey Visitor Centre. 
  16. ^ "Prinsep, Henry Charles (Harry) (1844–1922)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1988 Archived 20 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  17. ^ Design & Art Australia Online, "May Gibbs: Artist, Draughtsman, Painter, Cartoonist, Illustrator", 1995 Archived 20 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  18. ^ Walsh, p 38
  19. ^ Walsh, p 35
  20. ^ Walsh,p 44
  21. ^ Walsh, p 31
  22. ^ a b "May Gibbs: Artist, Draughtsman, Painter, Cartoonist, Illustrator", Design & Art Australia Online, 1995 Archived 20 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  23. ^ Walsh p 71
  24. ^ "May's Magic Vandalised", The Cartoon Factory, 26 June 1997 Archived 28 February 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  25. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2015-06-17.  retrieved 3 July 2012
  26. ^ "Heritage Places - Derry", NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, 2 August 2013 Archived 20 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  27. ^ "Heritage Places - Nutcote", NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, 2 August 2013 Archived 16 November 2016 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 6 December 2016
  28. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, "Crematorium opens doors to everlasting celebrations of life", 16 June 2012 Archived 18 October 2015 at the Wayback Machine.; Retrieved 7 August 2013
  29. ^ "News from Sydney University Press". Sydney University Press. 17 January 2009. Retrieved 3 June 2010. 
  30. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  31. ^ "Gumnut Babies turn 100, May Gibbs' famous series celebrated in Sydney", ABC News, 5 December 2016 Archived 24 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 6 December 2016


External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Sharkey, Chris and Pendal, Phillip (2000). May and Herbert Gibbs: The people, the Places, South Perth, W.A. The May Gibbs Trust. ISBN 0-646-38811-8
  • Walsh, Maureen (2007). May Gibbs: Mother of the Gumnuts, Sydney: Sydney University Press. ISBN 978-1-920898-49-6, [1]

See also[edit]