May Gibbs; artist: images of Snugglepot, Cuddlepie, Little Lobelia, Ragged Blossom eucalyptus gumnut babies

Snugglepot in a gumnut

Gumnut babies fit nicely in a gumnut
Gumnut babies fit nicely in a gumnut

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie now collected for value, beauty and as Australia icons.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Gumnut stories were the first wholly Australia fairy story. They were published during end of the first World War, in 1918 as 'The Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie' .
The author: The author and illustrator, daughter of an English immigrant family of artists - May Gibbs - (1877-1981) gained huge public success - for a time - as postcard illustrator, childrens' book author. But towards the end of her life, fell in to poverty; asset-rich but cash-poor in her beautiful house and garden on the shores of Sydney Harbour.
Turns to syndicated comic strips for newspapers: Later she made the most of her money - even greater financial success as an Australian comic strip - Bib and Bub - writer and columnist.
Her most financially successful books were Snugglepot and Cuddlepie - cute little gumnut babies, based on the three stages of the life cycle of a eucalyptus flower.
Wet years create Eucalyptus flowers:
Her success came in economic boom years of the first two decade of the 20th Century.
When the rain poured down: These were wet El Niño years, especially between 1915 and early 1918 and in 1920-1921.
Australia's Great Depression followed: A ten year drought followed and the economy collapsed, and May Gibb's prospects, too, as Australia's Great Depression began in 1929.


2012: Eucalptus blooms in sea-side Sydney after a very wet year

Pink flowered eucalyptus. Probably a grafted cultivar of Western Australian red flowering gum (Corymbia ficifolia. Now widely used as a street and garden tree. Also Good for making didgeridoos
Pink flowered eucalyptus. Probably a grafted cultivar of Western Australian red flowering gum (Corymbia ficifolia. Now widely used as a street and garden tree. Also Good for making didgeridoos

May Gibbs the artist; creator of Gumnut Babies

May Gibbs the breadwinner: a forceful personality, her husband, O J Kelly was in theory, her manager, but proved to have no negotiation skills. On his marriage he left his job with the Wheat Scheme Office. He was to act as her manager
May Gibbs the breadwinner: a forceful personality, her husband, O J Kelly was in theory, her manager, but proved to have no negotiation skills. On his marriage he left his job with the Wheat Scheme Office. He was to act as her manager

1918, May Gibbs, age 41 morphs quick sketches of departing troops into post card business

print, postcard format, 8.8 x 13.8cm.  COLLECTORS’ LIST No. 155, 2011 Good Luck And A Fair Wind, c1914- 1918. Colour process print, postcard format, JOSEF LEBOVIC GALLERY 8.8 x
print, postcard format, 8.8 x 13.8cm. COLLECTORS’ LIST No. 155, 2011 Good Luck And A Fair Wind, c1914- 1918. Colour process print, postcard format, JOSEF LEBOVIC GALLERY 8.8 x

Book sold 17000 copies on first release in 1917: still a top seller

This summer in Sydney, an El Nino year - we see a staggering display of flowering eucalyptus after the break of a ten-year drought.
May Gibbs the family breadwinner: One artist and writer who made money from flowering eucalyptus was May Gibbs. Educated in Perth. Gibbs went to London. She found extreme bias against women artists. Gibbs returned to Australia in 1913, and was soon to build a house at Neutral Bay, Sydney, called Nutcote funded from her first book Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. This masterpiece, published to celebrate the end of World War II, the Armistice celebrations of 1918 funded her house Nutcote, now a National Heritage Treasure. Gibbs commissioned for Nutcote the architect B. J Waterhouse. She stipulated arches, and plenty of them,to frame the fabulous Sydney harbour views.
Entrepreneur on the docks:
She made money outdoors doing quick sketches of soldiers departing for World War I, illustrating for the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction Board,and graduated to post card publishing.
Wartime postcards for the troops: Gibb's commercial success first came with Gumnut Baby war time postcards. These were designed to send to troops overseas. Postcard collectors now value these at a price around $500 each.
Rising on a ten year boom: In the boom years of 1920 to 1929, Gibbs - a decisive person - earned the role of family breadwinner. From 1924 she sold a weekly comic strip; Bib and Bub , to newspapers. Sometimes, Gibbs wrote under fake male names.
Alcoholic husband? Records show her husband, O. J. Kelly, a good sorter of paperwork. A dapper, stylish fellow, who made regular visitor to his tailor in the city. While May Gibbs star ascended, husband J. Ossoli Kelly, descended. Kelly proved indecisive, and perhaps alcoholic. He died in 1939, after a period of "depression", and a vaguely unexplained illness. They had no children.

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction: Kelly was said to invest in the stock market - for a while, he traveled daily to the Stock Exchange, on the Neutral Bay Ferry. At this time the Sydney Harbour Bridge was under construction. (One of Kelly's close friends was the man who galloped past the official dignatories and slashed the Harbour Bridge opening ribbon with a sword).
Close by the water: This ferry passed so close to Nutcote, May Gibbs was reported to have said she could hear conversations on as it passed. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened 19 March 1932; and a local mini-boom related to the bridge-building economically boosted the area.
Gibbs made property and house-building investment decisions, without consultation with Kelly. Gibbs followed the Gumnut line in two further books

  • 'Little Ragged Blossom', in 1920; and
  • 'Little Obelia' in 1921.
  • For a decade - until the Great Depression - she successfully syndicated her Bib and Bub and other comic strips, and columns - to Australian and New Zealand newspapers under her own and other names. Gibbs earnings remained one tenth of comparable male comic strip artists.

May Gibbs the breadwinner: May Gibbs husband invested in the stockmarket and liked to buy fine clothes. May made the decision to buy land and build Nutcote. By 1919 Gibbs also bought land at Blackheath, and a car to get there. After the stock market collapse, Gibb's husband fell into a depression. May Gibb's star, rose.


Mine eyes have seen the glory

Flowering in Sydney, Australia, after a very very wet year, and at Perihelion - the day the Earth and the Sun orbit closest together.
Flowering in Sydney, Australia, after a very very wet year, and at Perihelion - the day the Earth and the Sun orbit closest together. | Source

Gum Blossom Ballet

Gumnut babies wear no pants. But its not rude, its very cute   No need for disposable nappies in the great outdoors, among the gum trees.
Gumnut babies wear no pants. But its not rude, its very cute No need for disposable nappies in the great outdoors, among the gum trees.

More flowers on eucalyptus Corymbia ficifolia in a humid climate

May Gibbs sourced illustration ideas from Australian native trees; for a modern example - like the ecucalypt Corymbia ficifolia or its hybrids - flowers like those illustrated in the various gum nut baby sequences, come in pink to red and everything in between, Scarlet Red, Pale Pink, Purple Pink, Snow and a Cream color; colors seen in May Gibb's work. These modern hybrids are shorter versions of the tall forest gums May Gibbs worked from.
Hybrid flowering gums: Today, plant breeders cross Corymbia ficifolia with its close relative Corymbia ptychocarpa to make beautiful small eucalypt trees - they won't grow into electricity lines - with bigger flowers.
Tropical genes: They do better in humid climates such as Northern NSW and Queensland.

May Gibbs an extraordinary success; makes more money from cartoon strips

But still paid one tenth of male earnings. Male artist for Ginger Meggs strip earned 40-50 pounds per strip. May Gibbs got 5 pound, tops.
But still paid one tenth of male earnings. Male artist for Ginger Meggs strip earned 40-50 pounds per strip. May Gibbs got 5 pound, tops.

May Gibbs marries a year after the success of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

1919 May met Bertram James Ossoli Kelly, a mining agent, a year after the public of her vast success Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie
Life among the gum trees:
They married and returned to Sydney to live. Gibbs commissioned architect B. J. Waterhouse to design - with direction from May Gibbs - NutCote, on the shores of Neutral Bay, in land subdivided from an old mansion - Wallaringa - on the hill. They moved in, in, 1925. She began an English garden on the sandstone slope to the sea. This was at 2 Wallaringa Avenue


Sweet pea seed packet

Source

May liked roses and European flowers; She planted Rosa banksii, 'Lady Hillingdon', Blackboy, 'Madame Butterfly' 'Radiance', 'Etoile de Hollande', and 'Dorothy Perkins' .
Spring flowers: In the bedding garden she had Carnation, Blanket flower, Sweet pea, Lobelia, Lupins, Stock, Nemesia, Iceland poppy, Phlox, Primula, Senecio, Marigold, French Marigold, Nasturtium and Pansy. She was a gardener after the style of another emigrant to Australia, the garden planner and writer, Edna Walling. Gibbs and Walling learned to mix Australian and European plants

Garden a source of creative ideas:

“Nutcote” is a dear little place with a long, long garden. I used to walk
around the garden, weeding it and loving it, and with a book in my pocket and a pencil and that’s
where I got my best ideas, out in the open, gardening.."

Gumnut Babies sitting on a branch

17,000 copies of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) sold on its first release.

In 1916 May Gibbs published Gumnut Babies, the first of the Gumnut books. She also illustrated and sold book-marks, small calendars. Publishers, Angus & Robertson Ltd, sold 17,000 copies of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) on its first release. These are collectables today and sold on ebay. All Gumnut material is highly collectable.

She called it the Dodgem

She drove, he navigated
She drove, he navigated

May Gibbs, cartoonist and columnist, liked to drive her car from Sydney to the Blue Mountains

May Gibbs, Australia’s first woman cartoonist: She also worked newspapers. Her ability was evident at the age of twelve she had a page of her illustrations published in the West Australian Bulletin.
Earns more from cartoon strips than her books: She earned five pounds a weekly strip for Bib and Bub from August 1925. May Gibbs - a strong negotiator - retained syndication rights, and the right to publish in book form. She first paid 25 per cent to an agent. After 1930 she fired the agent and dealt directly with publishers, all male. For a further fifteen pounds a week she also sold Bib and Bub to The Adelaide Mail, The New Zealand Herald, The Melbourne Star, The Northern Queensland Register and the Daily Mail, Brisbane. From 1926 another strip by her was also taken by the Perth Sunday paper under the name "Stan Kottman". At the time the producer of Ginger Meggs earned forty to fifty pounds a week, per strip, reported the biography. 'May Gibbs, Mother of the Gumnuts'
Free work for children's charities:
While May Gibbs fought for her rights as a commericial artist and writer, Gibbs responded cheerfully to request from charities for mothers and children; for example free posters for the Royal Society of Mothers and Babies.

Gumnuts in Bronze; on boardwalk by Luna Park

Very small bronze Gumnut babies by Sydney artist Peter Kingston, one of the group which worked to save May Gibbs House, Nutcote from destruction.
Very small bronze Gumnut babies by Sydney artist Peter Kingston, one of the group which worked to save May Gibbs House, Nutcote from destruction.

Just one eucalypt in the Nutcote garden survived development plans and multiple tenants. Nutcote sat empty and abandoned for a time, as developers and conservators battled.
After a long fight over her will, in the relics of the garden, the Conservation Report for Nutcote, commissioned by North Sydney Council, reported one Eucalyptus. A botryoides. Also called Southern Mahoghany, the tree attracts birds with beige-dusty flowers. Large gumnuts follow.

White eucalyptus

Source

Biography of May Gibbs

Gumnut babies in the art studio

May Gibbs worked hard to gain her skills
May Gibbs worked hard to gain her skills

Art school

From 1901 to 1904 May Gibbs studied art in England at the Cope and Nichol school, the South Western Polytechnic, Chelsea, various night schools and the Henry Blackburn School of Black and White Art. She produced comic strips for rival papers under an assumed name for ten years.
In 1918 Gibbs’ first major children’s book and ultimately her most popular work, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Their Adventures Wonderful was published.
Comparable works: it reported This work, like Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian by Dorothy Wall (published in 1933) had an element of foreboding danger unlike other major Australian authors such as Pixie O’Harris whose work was marred by cloyingly cute elements, whilst Ida Rentoul Outhwaite had an ethereal quality that was more closely aligned with European traditions than with the indigenous Australian experience.
Sequels don't get off the tarmac: The sequels to Snugglepot and CuddlepieLittle Ragged Blossom (1920) and Little Obelia (1921) quickly followed. In 1923 Nuttybub and Nittersing was published and in 1924 Chucklebud and Wunkydoo was released. None were to achieve the success of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series which in 1940 were combined into one volume and published as The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

Nutcote: The sea view from the ocean side

A little piece of paradise funded by gum nut babies; Sydney Harbour through series of beautiful arches.
A little piece of paradise funded by gum nut babies; Sydney Harbour through series of beautiful arches. | Source

May's kitchen

The kitchen is adjacent the dining room  and a connection is made via the servery  hatch.  The kitchen is an extremely small  room (reputedly at May Gibbs' own  request) housing little more than a sink,  stove and some shelves that have been  reconst
The kitchen is adjacent the dining room and a connection is made via the servery hatch. The kitchen is an extremely small room (reputedly at May Gibbs' own request) housing little more than a sink, stove and some shelves that have been reconst | Source

Nutocote now a teashop and wedding venue

On her death she willed the house to United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, Unicef. The charter of Unicef did not allow it to own property. It was later bought by North Sydney Council after a long local campaign. The value was by then $2.9 million. The house is now a protected national treasure used for weddings and fairy parties for children, managed by the Council
A Deed of Settlement established the Nutcote Trust on 25th July 1990 and “Nutcote” was
leased to the Nutcote Trust Pty Ltd at an annual rental of $10. The lease required “Nutcote” to be restored and opened to the public. Funding was provided by the Commonwealth ($250,000) and State ($300,000) Governments, North Sydney Leagues Club ($100,000), and a myriad of public donations. The house and gardens of “Nutcote” were restored and opened
to the public in May 1994. The Nutcote Trust Pty Ltd has the responsibility for managing the property as a house museum.


View from Nutcote

Portion of a print by Lavender Bay artist and Nutcote neighbour, artist Peter Kingston - one of the group which successfully lobbied for Hertage protection - for May Gibbs' home.
Portion of a print by Lavender Bay artist and Nutcote neighbour, artist Peter Kingston - one of the group which successfully lobbied for Hertage protection - for May Gibbs' home. | Source

Front door

Source

Gibbs cut herself off from the world

$5000 mortgage: Her husband died in 1939. Her father in 1940. The house loan was not paid for another 15 years - in 1953. She also may have had taken a loan to buy land in Blackheath. Gibbs now experienced poverty, as the Depression extended, New books did not sell at the rate of her earlier books. Strips were cancelled, or cut back.
Great Depression not good for Gumnut Babies: The 1930s Depression cut her income. Her husband died in 1939, she lived on at Nutcote with her dogs (usually Scotch terriers). She published Scotty in Gumnut Land (1941), Mr. and Mrs. Bear and Friends (1943) and her last book Prince Dande Lion in 1954.
A little bit late
: in 1969 she was granted a literary pension by the Commonwealth Literary Fund. May Gibbs died in Sydney on 27 November, 1969.

I put a wee bit of of eucalptus oil in the wash for the sheets and pillows as it kills dust mites. Also to inhale for colds and flu

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6 comments

Lissie Loomes profile image

Lissie Loomes 4 years ago from Tasmania, Australia

Congratulations on such an awesome hub. You filled in a few gaps for me in the May Gibbs story. I have long admired her tenacity, she never gave up but worked around her circumstances. A lesson for us all I think. Great to see good Aussie content too. Will be awaiting your next contribution. Thanks again.


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Thanks Lissie! After writing this I felt great sympathy for May Gibbs. I also felt I should visit Nutcote for afternoon tea. I have not done that yet.


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Here's quality hub with a similar flavour; this one about childrens' author A.A Milne. http://tonyplaysthemambo.hubpages.com/hub/Poetry-a...


Enlydia Listener profile image

Enlydia Listener 4 years ago from trailer in the country

Thanks for the pictures and all of the information...I enjoyed reading this. Never heard of her, but like her artwork.


Heather Kamala 4 years ago

What a wonderful article. I grew up with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and have read it to my children. So much I didn't know. Thank you!


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Cuddlepie and Snugglepot were part of my childhood too...love those fluffy little hats and gumtree tutu skirts

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