May Gibbs is synonymous with gumnuts, childhood and cuteness. Whenever I show the May Gibbs illustrations to visitors they invariably exclaim: ‘Aww, that is so cute!’ Perhaps this is part of her enduring appeal.
On 5 December 2016 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Gumnut Babies. This small book retailed at 1 shilling and sixpence and the first print run of 3000 copies sold out before Christmas. Gibbs received a commission of 12.5% of the price of each book from her publisher, Angus and Robertson. Gumnut Babies was the first in a series of five “bush baby books” with Gum-blossom Babies (1916), Flannel Flowers and other Bush Babies (1917), Boronia Babies (1917) and Wattle Babies (1918) to follow. From 1916 to 1920, a gumnut greedy public snapped up 126,660 copies of the bush babies books.
In 1918, Gibbs added to her profile and popularity with the publication of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Their Adventures Wonderful. These two brothers became her best known characters. In between their escapades and battles with Mrs Snake and the wicked banksia men, they engaged in many cultured activities. The gum nuts visited the art gallery, Lilly Pilly Picture Palace and the seahorse races. In this colour illustration, printed opposite the title page, a chorus of frogs has become an orchestra for the blossom ballerinas.
Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was an instant success – over 17,000 copies of the first edition were sold. Gibbs dedicated her first full length picture book to ‘the two dearest children in the world: Lefty and Bill’. These were the nicknames for her parents.
Given May Gibbs’ phenomenal success from 1916, it is hard to believe that, like many authors, she struggled to get her first book published. She shopped around for a publisher in Perth (where she grew up) and London for four years before About Us was published. This book, set in ‘chimney pot land’, did not hold the same whimsical appeal as her gumnut babies.
May Gibbs was 38 years old when Gumnut Babies was published. She continued to write books; produce a range of merchandise (bookmarks, calendars, postcards); draw a weekly cartoon strip – ‘Bib and Bub’ and 'Tiggy Touchwood’; and write a weekly column – ‘Gumnut Gossip’; until 1967, two years before her death. She was one of the few women of her generation to support herself as an artist and author-illustrator.
May Gibbs married Bertram James Ossoli Kelly, a mining agent, in 1919 and they had twenty years together, living in Neutral Bay, Sydney, before his death in 1939. They had no children. When May Gibbs died in 1969, she left her estate to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and all her artworks, papers and copyright to the NSW Society for Crippled Children (now The Northcott Society) and the Spastic Centre of NSW (now the Cerebral Palsy Alliance). In 1970 the two charities presented the May Gibbs archive to the State Library of NSW.
A small selection of May Gibbs’ original artworks are on display in the Amaze gallery until 30 January 2017.
A more extensive display of reproduction artworks showing the breadth of her career are on display in the level 1 Macquarie corridor until 26 February 2017 before they tour to regional New South Wales. Both exhibitions are free.