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In early 1913, May Gibbs returned to Australia with her close friend Irene (Rene) Heames, whom she had met in London through the Women’s Suffrage movement. Soon after, the women moved from Perth to Sydney.
At 36 years of age, Gibbs was ready to make her mark and quickly set to work in her 'Little Studio’, at 4 Bridge Street, while Rene took a job as a telephonist at the GPO. The women shared boarding rooms in Neutral Bay, and Rene helped May handcraft a range of calendars and cards using her Australian themes. This pair of portraits, painted by Gibbs in about 1923, shows both women wearing the same terry cloth beach robe.
Sydney was the place for an aspiring Australian illustrator at this time – with the offices of the most popular magazines, like The Bulletin and The Lone Hand, and publisher/bookseller Angus & Robertson all based there.
In mid 1913, the editor of The Sydney Mail offered Gibbs the chance to design 25 covers – the most substantial contract she had yet received. Between August 1913 and 17 June 1914, eight of Gibbs’ cover designs for The Sydney Mail were published, before this lucrative contract was curtailed by the outbreak of World War 1.
In addition to this, during 1913, Gibbs also received a cover artist’s most sought after local commission, when Frank Fox, editor of The Lone Hand magazine, requested a Western Australian black swan cover design from her. The first of Gibbs’ three published covers for The Lone Hand appeared in January 1914, featuring 13 gumnut babies nestled in a mass of gumleaves.
With the onset of World War 1, Gibbs was anxious to contribute to the war effort. In all, Gibbs created over 30 designs for postcards during the war years. She recalled: "I did the gumnut cards because I wanted to do something for people to send to the soldiers".
These cards were also included in the Red Cross parcels sent to Australian troops.
Her first series of postcards used some of her most popular designs: the Flannel Flower babies were registered in January 1914, followed by Christmas Bell babies in September. May’s distinctive designs also appeared on two further series of postcards featuring images of kookaburras and kangaroos and carrying characteristically Australian sentiments.
Gumnut baby bookmarks
In December 1913, May Gibbs took out copyright registration for a gumleaf-shaped bookmark which would become one of Australia’s most iconic designs. She wanted to design a good Australian bookmark and thought the gumleaf ‘a pretty thing’, if only she could ‘make it interesting [on] both sides’. It was from this simple bookmark design that her entire bushland fantasy world would evolve.
The first gumnut baby bookmarks were hand-painted by May and Rene and sold for five shillings each. But instant demand meant hand-production soon gave way to commercial print runs of the bookmarks which were then sold for only sixpence each.