Sunday History Photo / Person

Submitted: Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 06:47
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May Gibbs was born in 1877 in England, but migrated to Australia with her family in 1881. While she grew up in Perth, it was to Sydney that she was eventually drawn, choosing to live out her days in Neutral Bay. Gibbs was surrounded by art from an early age, with both her parents amateur artists and their house frequented by artists and musicians. May enjoyed exploring the bush riding her pony, Brownie, and began to paint and write about the bush at this time. This period of her childhood, and her imaginative interpretation of the bush, was formative in the development of the anthropomorphic bush setting found in her work. When May was 10, the family moved to Perth, and in 1889 May was published for the first time - in the Christmas edition of the W.A. Bulletin.
Her career began in 1901, when a number of illustrations were accepted by various magazines and newspapers. On a trip to England, she succeeded in obtaining work as illustrator for Georgian England and The Struggle with the Crown, for Harrop in London, but her Australian stories were not accepted. She returned to England three times before settling in Sydney, when real success finally came her way.



Gibbs was a regular contributer to School Magazine; illustrated the front cover of Amy Mack's Scribbling Sue; and created covers for The Sydney Mail and Lone Hand. It was her cover illustration, of the January 1914 edition of Lone Hand, which proved the turning point in her career. Here Australia was introduced to her now famous, gumnut babies. May Gibbs had founded a whole new Australian identity. By 1918, May Gibbs had become a national celebrity. She had created an entirely new Australian fantasy world, devoid of the English goblins, fairies and elves and was consequently in great demand.




Since eucalypts and banksias, not to mention all of the bush creatures, are found right across Australia, Gibbs had created images that appealed to the entire nation. Seed pod hats, gum blossom skirts, gumleaf and sea shell houses, leaf boats and stick chairs, set imaginations running wild. Children everywhere couldn't help but wonder when they saw such things, whether Gumnut Babies really did live there, especially when they could actually see their scribbly writing on the trees. Gibbs took what every child could easily find and gave it a fantasy life of its own. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, visit the dentist, ride on trams, go to parties, take part in sporting events and visit the seaside. The Nuts and Blossoms had all the adventures and independence every child longs for. At the same time, however, they met with many perils as well. These of course came in the form of snakes and greedy fish and were personified in The Big Bad Banksia men. The Big Bad Banksia men, with their all seeing eyes and hairy bodies, terrified children everywhere, to the point where parents were even known to complain!

Publishers, of course, used her talents to the full, especially during the war. Large numbers of patriotic postcards, calendars, book marks and booklets were produced, all to boost morale and provide some humour for the troops. 1916 saw the creation of her Gumnut booklets, which were a very clever, innovative move by publishers at the time, since they were cheap to produce and affordable to the general public. Very different from the elaborate limited edition fairy books by Outhwaite, which also appeared at this time. The booklets had wide appeal, both to Australia and the troops overseas. They introduced many of her now famous characters - Gumnut Babies, Gum Blossom Babies, Boronia Babies and Flannel Flower Babies, to name just a few. May Gibbs therefore, was an icon herself, even before the famous Snugglepot and Cuddlepie appeared. Needless to say, when Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was released, in 1918, it became an instant success.




May Gibbs style was highly imaginative, original and uniquely Australian, but she was also an astute observer of the world around her. With so much influence from Britain in Australia at that time, especially with children's literature, Gibbs' work was like a breath of fresh air. Australian children now had a national identity. Her work owes little or nothing to overseas inspiration. May Gibbs brought the beauty and uniqueness of the bush and all its creatures right into everyone's lounge rooms. It was fantasy and realism all in one, with wonderful humour for all ages. Her Nuts and Blossoms, were cute, cuddly, adventurous, brave and kind, just the sort of characters that were needed after the harsh realities of war. She observed closely the features and habits of each creature and cleverly and humorously included these in her stories. Indeed May Gibbs displayed a knowledge of the bush and its creatures that was really quite astounding for its time. Insects with peculiar features each were given a special purpose, Mr. Bullant's pincers were perfect for removing teeth and 'A refreshment stall' shows how useful the unusual features of one beetle can be! In the ocean, Mr. Seahorse was left to mind the children, fish really did attend schools and oyster beds made for perfect hospital beds.

While the majority of her works were in sepia pen and ink, she also worked with carefully chosen water colours, which were very true to life. The gum leaves, flowers and seed pods were almost exactly that of the real thing, as were the skin tones of the little bare bottomed Nuts. The full colour illustrations appeared in soft, earthy tones and were warm and appealing to both adults and children alike. Unfortunately later copies fell victim to post-war printing, and were produced in rather garish colours on poor quality paper. The 1940 edition of The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, came with the following –

DEAR EVERYBODY,
Our pictures were not printed in a fog or a sandstorm.
It's the war. Nobody could get the paper right.
But our story is just the same.
SIGNED
Snugglepot and Cuddlepie




This year marks the centenary of the first appearance of her bare-bottomed gumnut babies, which have now become part of our national folklore -- transforming the Australian bush into a place where wildflower babies and Banksia men dwell. May Gibbs began her drawing career in Perth under the guidance of her artist father, Herbert Gibbs. She became a botanical illustrator and travelled to England a number of times studying the fine arts. From her mid 30s, May Gibbs lived in Sydney in a house with the charming name Nutcote. She lived there, creating her gumnut fairy world, until her death at 92 in 1969.

Here's a little You Tube I put together a couple days ago.



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Reply By: Member - John - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 07:10

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 07:10
Thank you, very informative as usual. John
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Reply By: Bushranger1 - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 07:21

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 07:21
Thanks Doug,
Our girls always loved the Gumnut Babies.
Thats a great video clip at the end. Reminds me of our 2 yrs on the road with the girls & them playing that song in the back of the car all the time.

They still call me the "Big bad Banksia man" everytime I let my beard grow long & they are all grown up now!

Cheers
Stu
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Follow Up By: Life Member - Doug T (NT) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 07:31

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 07:31
yeh...they sure do grow up fast.

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Reply By: mfewster - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 08:44

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 08:44
That is a wonderful post. I think the May Gibbs stories and illustrations I was brought up on as a child have had a lot to do with my enjoyment of the Oz bush.
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Reply By: steamfire01 - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 09:24

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 09:24
Thanks Doug
A lovely story, well presented.
Appreciate your work.
Stay safe out there
TJ
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Reply By: Member - Don & Kathie M (TAS) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 11:15

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 11:15
Thanks Doug.
The walls of the Children's Ward at Ryde Hospital were decorated with May Gibbs murals in 1950 when I had my appendix removed. At the time I believed they were painted by May herself.

Cheers, Kathie
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Reply By: Member - allan t (NT) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 11:40

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 11:40
Hi Doug Very good ,Ihad almost forgot about snugglepot and cuddlepy ,took me back to my childhood .thanks again .Allan
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Reply By: Member - Noel K (NT) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 12:08

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 12:08
G/day Mate,

Brought back instant memories of my early childhood, even a bit of fear, when I saw the Banksia Man.
We used to go to Perth from Geraldton for holidays and stayed at my Aunts place. I was always on the alert, as she lived in Banksia St.
Good one Doug.

Cheers

Noel K.


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Reply By: On Patrol & TONI - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 13:12

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 13:12
A couple of years ago I visited "Nutcote" in Neutral Bay & was told a quaint story about May by the curator of the museum.

It seems she had a phobia about right hand turns, she avoided them as much as she could. Her shopping trips from Nutcote to Neutral Bay in her Hudson were worked out so as to only make left turns.

Today she would be horrified as most of the streets she would have travelled are either closed to through traffic or opposing direction one way streets.

I love that sort of trivia!!!

Hey Doug, wie lange, bis du nach Deutschland fliegen?????
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Follow Up By: Life Member - Doug T (NT) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:28

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:28
Flug gebucht und bezahlt für die Abfahrt am 16. Juli, über Korean Airlines mit einer Nacht in Seoul, Ankunft Frankfurt Ende der am 17. Juli.

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Follow Up By: On Patrol & TONI - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:35

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:35
sehr gut.

Are you staying at your current location until then? If so I will be up your way over Easter.
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Reply By: Member - bungarra (WA) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 14:01

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 14:01
Hi Doug

Excellent reading as always.

May has an association with my home town and our local tourist bureau has quite a lot on her as well....see link below.....for those interested there are more links (google)

http://www.harveytourism.com/attractions/details?row_id=145486558

cheers




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Follow Up By: Life Member - Doug T (NT) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:54

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:54
Good find mate... , thanks.

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Reply By: Member - barry F (NSW) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 18:24

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 18:24
Thanks Doug for another great post, we always enjoy your work but this one in particular was special because it brought back many happy childhood memories of her books and also reminded me of reading them to our kids when they were toddlers. In fact I kicked myself because I'm pretty sure we still have a number of her books up in the house, so I will seek them out later ( I'm busy lowering the beer frig stock at the moment!!) in order that we can introduce our Grandchildren to the wonderful world she created.
The video was great and and added an extra enjoyable dimension to your work. Cheers.
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Follow Up By: Life Member - Doug T (NT) - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:36

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:36
Thanks Barry, I recieved an email from a friend in Minnesota USA , her Dad was stationed at Iron Range on Cape York with 90th Bomb Group Heavy USAAF , she didn't post her comments , I guess some don't need to log in. this was her comment.

-----------------------------------------------------------------
What an interesting story! I love the names of the characters and I can see where children would love them. Do you know if any of those stories have been reprinted for use now? I have a 7-year old granddaughter who would love those characters.

Linda
--------------------------------------------------------------------

So I did a bit of a search on the net and found some at the ABC shop, there's an ABC shop here in Orange so my plan is to get a book and send it to her .

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Reply By: Marion - Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:56

Sunday, Feb 03, 2013 at 21:56
Hi Doug,

What can I say except you've done it again.
Brought back great memories, and I just love the You Tube.

Thanks as always
Marion
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