Cecilia May Gibbs was born in Sydenham, Kent, England on 17 January 1877. She was the only daughter of Herbert William Gibbs (1852-1940), public servant and artist, and his wife Cecilia Rogers. Preceded by her father, May Gibbs migrated with her mother and brother to South Australia in 1881, when she was four years old. In 1885, the family moved to a Harvey River homestead in Western Australia, where she spent two impressionable years in the Australian bush. The family finally settled at ‘The Dune’, Perth.
May grew up in an artistic household, surrounded by cultural and theatrical activities, with her parents actively involved in local arts and theatre groups. Demonstrating artistic ability from an early age, May had a particular interest in botanical drawings. She won first prize at the age of 15 for her entry in a Western Australian wildflowers exhibition in Perth, and continued to receive accolades for her botanical work throughout the 1890s.
Between 1900 and 1913 she travelled overseas three times to study art in England, becoming proficient in various styles of artwork, including botanical illustrations, life drawing and caricature. Her early skill and training can be seen in her later work depicting the Australian bush and wildlife. She subsequently received assignments for illustrations from newspapers and publishing houses in both London and Perth.
> View a selection of May Gibbs’ early botanical and life drawings
Gibbs embodied the ‘New Woman’ of the early 20th century. A contemporary of Miles Franklin, both women gained independence and freedom travelling overseas and came into contact with the suffragette movement. While in London in 1910 and 1911, she became involved with the leading suffragette journal The Common Cause, contributing cover designs and illustrations.
She returned from London a full-time, professionally trained illustrator. Settling in Neutral Bay, Sydney, she maintained a steady livelihood with commissions from publishers. With the onset of World War I, she began producing Australian-themed postcards, bookmarks and calendars destined for the Australian troops overseas.