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 Harvey River homestead, Western Australia, where she spent two impressionable years in the Australian bush, and finally settled at ‘The Dune’, Perth.
May Gibbs 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, Gibbs had a particular interest in botanical drawings. She won first prize at the age of 15 for her entry in the West Australian wildflowers exhibition in Perth, and continued to receive accolades for her 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 received assignments to illustrate from newspapers and publishing houses in London and Perth.
Gibbs embodied the ‘New Woman’. A contemporary of Miles Franklin, both women enjoyed financial independence and freedom travelling overseas and coming 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.
Gibbs returned from London a full-time, professionally trained illustrator. Settling in Neutral Bay, Sydney in 1913, she maintained a steady livelihood with commissions from publishers. With the onset of the First World War, she began producing Australian-themed bookmarks, postcards and calendars which were popular to send to Australian troops overseas.