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May Gibbs

Children's author and illustrator (1877–1969)

About May Gibbs

May Gibbs is one of Australia’s best-known children’s authors and illustrators. Drawing inspiration from the Australian bush, May’s watercolours of gumnut babies, big bad banksia men, kangaroos and kookaburras shaped generations of children’s responses to nature.

As Australia’s first full-time, professionally trained children’s book author and illustrator, her works continue to delight readers to this day.

Location

  • Street address:5 Wallaringa Ave, Neutral Bay 2089
  • Traditional name:Wirra-birra

Accessibility

  • Not Wheelchair accessible

Category

  • Author and illustration

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Detailed information

Head and shoulders black and white photo of a young woman with short wavy hair
Portrait of May Gibbs c. 1916. Image Courtesy of National Library of Australia

May Gibbs was born in 1877 and emigrated from England to Harvey River in Western Australia as a young child. It was here she first fell in love with the Australian bush.

Raised in an artistic household, May had an innate talent for drawing the natural world. When she was 15, she won first prize for her botanical entry in a West Australian wildflowers’ exhibition. She continued to receive accolades for her work throughout the 1890s.

Encouraged by this success, May studied art in England from 1901 to 1904.

Unusually for a woman at this time, May was paid for her artistic output, producing articles, illustrations and cartoons for the Western Mail in Perth. Yet occasional employment didn’t satisfy her. She was determined to see the world, building financial independence and a career.

In 1909, May travelled back to England, publishing her first illustrated children’s book, About Us, in 1912. She was also involved with Britain’s suffragette movement contributing cover designs and illustrations to the leading suffragette journal The Common Cause. Her time in England was short-lived, as ill health forced her to return to Sydney. Here she earned her living illustrating government pamphlets and covers for magazines, including the Sydney Mail.

When World War I broke out, May returned to her first love – botanical drawing – designing postcards for family members to send to loved ones serving overseas. Featuring skilfully drawn native flowers and tiny bush ‘babies’, the cards were instantly popular and the Red Cross enclosed them in parcels to the front line.

"I did the gumnut cards because I wanted to do something for people to send to the soldiers,” she recalled.

A poster drawn for NSW Public Health Department maternal and baby welfare drawn in 1918. Dr Stork is seen delivering two human babies. Mrs Kookaburra, who holds a gumnut baby looks on. Dr. Stork remarks “I hardly like delivering the goods Mrs Kookaburra them humans is so gum careless of ‘em”. This poster was used to promote the services of the department and address the issue of infant mortality.
New South Wales Department of Public Health Poster, 1918. By May Gibbs, 1918.  Copyright The Northcott Society and The Cerebral Palsy Alliance 2022.

In 1916, she published Gumnut Babies, the first of the Gumnut books she wrote and illustrated. She also sold bookmarks, small calendars and other novelties with similar motifs. Her publisher, Angus & Robertson, was shocked when all 17,000 copies of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie sold out on its first release in 1918.

May married Bertram James Ossoli Kelly in 1919 and together they built Nutcote, a Spanish-style house surrounded by gum trees, on the shores of Neutral Bay.

Two years after the release of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, May created an iconic poster for the NSW Department of Public Health’s first Baby Week campaign. This illustration, titled Dr Stork and Mrs Kookaburra, became arguably her most celebrated and recognisable image. It was used in official health publications until 1959.

A prolific newspaper cartoonist, May wrote and illustrated the famous Bib and Bub comic strip for more than 40 years, beginning in the 1920s. She continued writing books over the ensuing decades even as her financial plans were disrupted by the Great Depression. After her husband died in 1939, she lived on at Nutcote with her dogs.

In 1955, May was appointed a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in acknowledgment of her contribution to children’s literature.

May’s work lives on, and her imaginative portrayal of uniquely Australian characters - gumnuts, blossom babies, and bad 'banksia men' - continues to delight generations of children.

Related information

Nutcote Museum website, The Nutcote Trust

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