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 Cecilia May Gibbs  (1877 - 1969)

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Lived/Active: Australia      Known for: children's book illustrations

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from Auction House Records.
Country House 1901
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

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.

Select Bibliography
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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