May Gibbs, author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie - Australia's best children book author

May Gibbs - Self Portrait
May Gibbs - Self Portrait | Source


I was introduced to the wonderful world of May Gibbs and the Gumnut Babies back in the late 1980s when I first arrived in Australia.

The few years following that, I recall being enthralled by her work, by the way she managed to capture the essence of Australia in her drawings, illustrations, cartoons and paintings. I thought her style exceptional, highly imaginative and original. She appeared to be a keen observer of her immediate surroundings, as is so clearly portrayed in her work.

May Gibbs' life efforts were without equal, she brought the beauty of the Australian indigenous bush onto paper, spinning tales around the native banksia, gumleaves, gumnuts, gum blossoms, kangaroo, koala, kookaburra, and more - that way touching the lives of many Australians with her unique stories and talent for many generations to come.


Diorama of gumnut babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, in Harvey Stirling Cottage, Western Australia, Australia
Diorama of gumnut babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, in Harvey Stirling Cottage, Western Australia, Australia | Source
May Gibbs poster- The first Infant Welfare campaign, NSW Health Dept (circa 1920)
May Gibbs poster- The first Infant Welfare campaign, NSW Health Dept (circa 1920) | Source


Early years

Cecilia May Gibbs was born in 1887 in Kent, United Kingdom. She migrated to South Australia, Australia with her family around about when she was 4 years old. The whole family moved to Harvey, Western Australia when she was approximately 8 years and it was here in Harvey that May allowed her imagination to roam free - she began to paint and write stories about the bush that she had so loved to explore.

Her career as an artist started in 1901 - many of May's illustrations were accepted and printed by a number of magazines and newspapers in Australia. After completing school, May went back to the UK to study art. She returned to Australia in 1913 after a period of seven years, this time settling in Neutral Bay in Sydney, New South Wales. This is where success started to come her way.


The Gumnut Babies

It was this year in 1913 that the Gumnut Babies, also known as the 'Bush Babies', made its first ever public appearance on the book cover of The Missing Button , written by Australian author, Ethel Turner. The illustration produced by May was a beginning of a phenomenon that eventually led to a new found Australian identity. By the year 1918, May, thanks to the Gumnut Babies, had become a national success. She had created a completely new and outstanding Australian world of fantasy with the stories and adventures of the Gumnut Babies.


Snugglepot and Cuddlepie

May's very own first book with stories about the gumnut babies, simply titled Gumnut Babies , was published in 1916. Soon after in 1918, her most famous work, Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Their Wonderful Adventures , was released. The book journals the adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, alongside the troubles with the villains of the plot, the Banksia Men.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the main characters of the story, were fashioned after the Eucalyptus nuts while the female characters were modelled after the Eucalyptus flowers. The hairy Banksia Men were pictured after the aged banksia cones. May's background scenery was based on the bushland of Bunbury, Western Australia, where she played as a little girl.

In May's story of the Gumnut Babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie would visit the dentist, go to parties, visit the beach, ride on trams, and more. While they had many adventures, the Babies would also meet with many different perils, which made their books very interesting and much in demand.

Many of her illustrations and paintings reflected the Australian bush so intimately, indicating her deep love and understanding of the bush - the colours she used were in the variant browns and greens. She would capture the shapes and forms ot the Australian indigenous bush with delicately drawn outlines, and completed the work with watercolour, a style of wash. As with many artists in the 1920s May Gibbs work was much influenced by the art nouveau movement, which focused on an extensive use of line.


Before she died, it was May Gibb's wish that her original gumnut babies characters be faithfully reproduced. This illustration was superbly and sensitively recreated by Noela Young.
Before she died, it was May Gibb's wish that her original gumnut babies characters be faithfully reproduced. This illustration was superbly and sensitively recreated by Noela Young. | Source

May Gibbs' success and dying wish

May Gibbs' success continued on to the 1930s, however, she struggled to recover financially from the Depression period. May died in Sydney on 27 November 1969 but before her death, it was her wish and gave her consent that her original Gumnut Babies be faithfully reproduced. Through her precious work, we are very fortunate that May Gibbs' legacy will live on forever.


Gumnut Village Tourist Centre

I used to visit the Gumnut Village in Montrose, Victoria, Australia back in the 1990s where I would have my fill of May GIbb's work. I would stare and comtemplate her work, admire the facial expressions on the Gumnut Babies, observe the texture and strokes of each subject that she painted. Many of her work were replicated onto souvenir mugs, plates, posters, and more, all for the benefit of the tourists who visited the centre. This Centre is no longer in operation.


The video below was put together by nickwallacesmith as a tribute to May Gibbs.

Note the clean illustration work by this magnificent and talented artist, capturing the beauty and spirit of the indigenous Australian bush.


Video on May Gibbs (1877-1969) Writer and Illustrator of Australian Children's book


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Comments 2 comments

C Wilson 5 years ago

May Gibbs work is fantastic. Her illustrations are so Australiana. I like this article lots and will pass on to other friends.


May PL profile image

May PL 5 years ago from Melbourne, Australia Author

Thanks for passing this on to your friend. I really do appreciate your efforts :)

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