As a child, I spent many hours with my friends having adventures in the bush behind our houses in Sydney’s north. I was fascinated by the perfectly formed gumnuts that were scattered amongst the leaf litter. Little wonder May Gibbs found them fascinating too. They were perfect for tiny fingers to collect and perfect for the fingers of an illustrator and writer who would, in the early part of the 20th century, create the fantasy lands of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and Bib and Bub.
My Day with May began with a group of like-minded writers, illustrators, librarians and teachers, from the Children’s Book Council (CBCA). We met in the gift shop that was once the garage of May’s home, Nutcote, on Neutral Bay’s foreshore, overlooking the magnificence of Sydney Harbour.
May was born in England in 1877, and when she was four, she sailed with her family to Australia. May grew up in Perth where she attended Amy Best’s School for Young Ladies. It was here that she came under the spell of our magical landscape and bush. Her first illustration was published when she was 12 and May went on to become Australia’s first resident professional woman cartoonist and caricaturist. She also promoted the cause of Women’s Suffrage through feminist cartoons. When May was drawing her Bib and Bub comic strips (drawing one strip a week for over 40 years) she was paid 5 guineas a strip while Jimmy Bancks was getting 40 pounds for Ginger Meggs!
Who wasn’t terrified of the villainous Big Bad Banksia Men! I know I was every time I brushed by one of the whiskery bushes jiggling their prickly, shaggy banksias with their poddy, slitty eyes that appeared to follow you. May Gibbs had a brilliant mind and a wild imagination. She hooked the kids into her stories and made them squirm and delight, all at the same time.
May’s house is an exploration of enchantment. Each room was designed to capture the harbour view and her studio at the rear of the house is light-filled and filled with her loves: her original travelling easel, typewriter, portraits of her parents and of course the tools of an artist.
There are other artefacts such as the original ice chest (the ice was shipped from Canada), and in the tiny kitchen – the Early Kooka, Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book and boxes of Reckitts Instant Starch and Velvet Soap. May was one of our earliest entrepreneurs – she designed tea towels, spoons, slippers, calendars, vases and even fabrics that were sold in London – all featuring her Australian flora and fauna designs. Several of these items are displayed in a glass cabinet. May was a lover of picnics and went on many adventures with her husband. Her beloved Scottie dogs travelled with them in a wicker basket attached to the side of her Dodge.
Next year we celebrate the centenary of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. If you get the chance, take a visit to iconic Nutcote @ 5 Wallaringa Ave, Neutral Bay (Sydney) and walk in the steps of the gifted and amazingly diverse illustrator, artist and children’s book author – Celia May Gibbs.