May Gibbs (1877 – 1969) is one of Australia’s most treasured illustrators, artists and children’s book authors. Her bush fantasy world has captured the imaginations of Australians for over a century, creating a uniquely Australian folklore that holds a special place in the hearts of a nation. May was to say in later life ‘I’ve always had the greatest pleasure in thinking of all those little children who enjoyed my books. Everything became alive for me, it was just a fairy tale all the time.’ Born Cecilia May Gibbs in England on 17 January 1877, she was the only daughter of artist, cartoonist and public servant Herbert William Gibbs and Cecilia Rogers. May emigrated to Australia with her family in 1881 aboard the Hesperus at four years of age. First trying their hand at farming in South Australia, followed by two years at Harvey Cattle Station in Western Australia, the Gibbs family eventually gave up on the farming life and settled at ‘The Dunes’ in Perth. Over this time the young May spent many impressionable years observing the beauty of the Australian bush. In later years May was to say ‘It’s hard to tell, hard to say, I don’t know if the bush babies found me or I found the little creatures’. Raised in a creative household, May demonstrated artistic ability from an early age – ‘I could draw before I could walk,’ May was to recall. May excelled at botanical drawings and in 1892 at just fifteen years of age May won her first Art prize at the Perth Wild Flower Show, the first of many throughout the 1890s.
On moving to Sydney, May soon discovered the natural beauty of the Blue Mountains bushland and from her imagination the bush fairyland began to emerge.
Late in 1913, May was commissioned to illustrate the headpiece for Ethel Turner’s serial The Magic Button in the Sydney Mail. Hidden among the detail is a family of gumnuts peeping shyly out. A few years later May was to tell Theatre Magazine the idea for these gumnut babies came to her ‘in the middle of the night’. In December May also took out copyright registration for a gum-leafed bookmark which would become one of Australia’s most iconic designs.
In January 1914, the Gumnut Babies (called ‘Gum-Nut Brownies’) made their second appearance on the cover of the January issue of The Lone Hand. Intrigued with the little figures, the publisher of the Sydney Mail commissioned May to do twenty-five covers and from here the bush fairies began to make the appearances.
At the onset of World War I, May contributed by creating postcards featuring gumnut characters and Australian animals to be sent by families and in Red Cross parcels to the diggers across the world. These helped establish the foundation of fans and held pride of place in a nation’s psyche during a time of turmoil.
May had also began to make a name for herself with a steady output of ephemera – calendars, pictures, postcards and her iconic gumleaf bookmark. Initially handcrafted by May and Rene, demand soon gave way to commercial print runs.
Having established herself as an artist and keen to focus once again on writing, May began to write the Gumnut Babies stories.
On 5 December, just in time for Christmas, Gum-Nut Babies was published. This was followed shortly after by Gum-Blossom Babies. Critical response to these books was quite extraordinary and both books were an immediate sell out. Encouraged, May wrote three more bush baby books – Boronia Babies, Flannel Flower and Other Bush Babies in 1917, and Wattle Babies in 1918. The bush babies were now firmly established as part of Australian folklore.In 1918, May’s most ambitious work to date Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was published and was ardently scooped up by the Australian public and has never been out of print to this day. The book received glowing reviews both at home and abroad with readers enchanted by its distinctly Australian flavour. May’s contemporary Miles Franklin wrote in praise of the book, encouraging friends to read it also. It was within this book that May also revealed herself as a committed conservationist with the opening inscription ‘Humans Please be kind to all bush creatures and don’t pull flowers up by the roots’. Her concern was recognised and, in 1919, May Gibbs was made a life member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The Depression Years of the 1930s was particularly hard on those working in the arts, with items such as books seen as luxuries. May’s books experienced a slump in sales and she was never able to quite recover from this financially. After J.O. passed away in 1939, May busied herself with her work, her beloved Scotty dogs and tending the garden at Nutcote. At the passing of both her beloved father and mother in 1941 and her close friend Rene in the early fifties, May became a virtual recluse.
In 1955, May Gibbs was appointed Member of the British Empire (MBE) in acknowledgement of her important contribution to children’s literature. May’s sense of fun and clever humour was never lost as she planned the writing of an autobiography to be titled ‘This Other Fair(y) Tale’ by Ann Onymous. Sadly it never progressed beyond early notes and jottings and exhausted she wrote the project off as ‘A Muddle of Memories, a Huddle of Hearsay, A Gabble of Gossip, A Riot of Richness’.
In April 1967, her ninetieth year May completed her last cartoon and retired. On 27 November 1969, May Gibbs passed away in Sydney aged 92 years. The news of her death was a moment of great sadness for all Australians, with the following tribute expressing the sentiments of Australia:
‘No one will be quite as good. No one will touch such a multitude. May Gibbs is alone in her creative genius. For this reason May Gibbs has gained lasting fame in her own land.’
May Gibbs left a lasting legacy to thousands of children and adults with disability. Upon her death in 1969, May Gibbs left the coipyright of all her works jointly to The NSW Society for Crippled Children (now known as Northcott) and the Spastic Centre of NSW (now known as Cerebral Palsy Alliance). The generosity of May Gibbs will continue to assist the works of these charitable organisations through the royalties on sales of May Gibbs books and associated products.
For over 85 years, Northcott has provided support and services to children, young people and adults with disability to develop life skills, build confidence and become active participants in their communities.
See more at: northcott.com.au
Cerebral Palsy Alliance provides family-centred therapies, life skills programs, equipment and support for people living with cerebral palsy and their families and operates from 55 sites throughout metropolitan, regional and rural NSW and the ACT.
See more at: cerebralpalsy.org.au