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Cecilia May Gibbs was born on 17 January 1877 at Sydenham, Kent,
England, and reached Adelaide with her mother and brothers in the
Hesperus on 31 October 1881. She was educated at Amy Best's
girls' school in Perth. From 1901 to 1904 she 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.
Returning to Perth, in 1904 May Gibbs supplied the Western Mail with
articles, illustrations and cartoons, but, restless, she went to
England again in 1909 where she pursued her studies, completed
assignments as an illustrator for George G. Harrap & Co., published
a fantasy about London chimneys, About Us (1912), and drew cartoons for the Common Cause, published by the suffragettes.
Ill health forced May Gibbs to return to Australia in 1913 and she
settled at Neutral Bay, Sydney. She earned her living by doing
quick sketches of soldiers departing for World War I, illustrating for
the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction, contributing to Lone Hand and the English Tatler, and designing covers for the Sydney Mail. In 1916 she published Gumnut Babies,
the first of the Gumnut books she had written and illustrated.
She also wrote other books, sold book-marks, small calendars and other
novelties with gumnut and blossom babies. Her readers reacted to
her 'sense of fun' and surprised her publishers, Angus & Robertson
Ltd, by scooping up 17,000 copies of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) on its first release.
On a visit to Perth in 1919 May met Bertram James Ossoli Kelly, a
mining agent, and married him on 17 April. They returned to
Sydney to live and built a Spanish-type house, Nutcote, on the shores
of Neutral Bay surrounded by gum trees. About this time she was
described by 'Pixie O'Harris' (Mrs B. Pratt) as 'fairly tall, medium
weight, with dark hair, a lean artistic face and keen eyes. Her
voice was firm and refined'. May collected Spode and
willow-pattern china and enjoyed gardening, camping, music and
theatricals. She pursued her career as an author and illustrator,
publishing Little Ragged Blossom (1920) and Little Obelia (1921).
Her gumnuts, blossom babies and bad 'banksia men' were to delight
generations of children. On 3 August 1924 the first 'Bib and Bub'
cartoon strip was published in the Sydney Sunday News: the comic strip survived sundry newspaper mergers to run until September 1967. In 1925-31, the rival Sunday Sun published her second comic strip 'Tiggy Touchwood', under the pseudonym, 'Stan Cottman'. She also wrote a weekly column, Gumnut Gossip.
Until the 1930s May Gibbs was very successful. She published Nuttybub and Nittersing (1923) and Two Little Gum-Nuts (1929). All her books were reissued and five cartoon books of Bib and Bub
appeared. However, she never recovered financially from the
Depression, which disrupted negotiations for selling her work in
England and the United States of America and for screen rights.
After her husband died in 1939, she lived on at Nutcote with her dogs
(usually Scotch terriers) and published Scotty in Gumnut Land (1941), Mr. and Mrs. Bear and Friends (1943) and her last book Prince Dande Lion in 1954. In 1955 she was appointed M.B.E.
May Gibbs died in Sydney on 27 November 1969. Childless, she willed all
her papers and copyrights to the New South Wales Society for Crippled
Children and the Spastic Centre of New South Wales and the residue of
her estate, valued for probate at £42,532, to the United Nations
International Children's Emergency Fund.
H. Anderson (ed), The Singing Roads (Syd, 1965); B. Chapman, The
Colonial Eye (Perth, 1979); Australian Home Beautiful, 12 Mar 1926, p
16; West Australian, 11 Dec 1889; Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1953, 9
June 1955, 29 Nov 1969; ‘Pixie O'Harris’, A Memory of May Gibbs (MS
1661, State Library of New South Wales); May Gibbs papers (State
Library of New South Wales); 3 illustrated letters to H. C. Prinsep
from Butlers Swamp, 1887 (State Library of Western Australia); articles
of partnership in land in Western Australia, 24 Mar 1894 (553 A, and
1773 A, (State Library of Western Australia); private information. More
on the resources
Author: Maureen Walsh
Print Publication Details: Maureen Walsh, 'Gibbs, Herbert William (1852
- 1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne
University Press, 1981, pp 644-646.
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