Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gibbs, Cecilia May (1877–1969)

by Maureen Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

This is a shared entry with Herbert William Gibbs

Herbert William Gibbs (1852-1940), public servant and artist, and Cecilia May Gibbs (1877-1969), author, were father and daughter. Herbert was born on 21 November 1852 at Alverstoke, Southampton, England, eldest of seven children of William Gibbs, merchant, and his wife Eliza, née Emery. He was educated by his father (who became a private tutor at Singleton, Sussex, about 1871), then at a grammar school until, at 14, he lost an eye, and finally by Rev. Edward Cole, rector of St Peter's, Brighton. In 1870 he joined the civil service, working as a clerk in the General Post Office in 1877, and studied art at the School of Design, South Kensington, and with Philip Sydney Holland. On 24 October 1874 at Sydenham, Kent, he married Cecilia Rogers, a fellow art-student.

In June 1881, with his brother George, Gibbs arrived in South Australia in the Chimborazo, and was followed in October by his wife and three children. After an unsuccessful farming venture at Franklin River, he moved to Norwood and worked as a surveyor. In 1885 with George and two others he formed a company to take up the Stirling estate at Harvey in Western Australia. After two years the brothers sold out and moved to Perth. Herbert worked as a newspaper cartoonist in 1889 and next year was drawing master at Perth High School. In April 1891 he joined the Lands and Survey Department as a draftsman and clerk; he was clerk in charge, information, from 1894 until he retired in December 1917.

Active in the artistic life of Perth, Gibbs was a founder in 1890 with B. H. Woodward, Henry Prinsep and G. Temple Poole of the Wilgie Club, and of the West Australian Society of Arts and Crafts, exhibiting with them in 1896-97 and 1902-03. He painted landscapes in oils and watercolours and was interested in printmaking, sculpture and wood-carving. He and his wife were also active in the Musical Union and the Amateur Operatic Society which presented Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Gibbs died at his home in South Perth on 4 October 1940 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.

His only daughter Cecilia May 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 and was cremated with Anglican rites. 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.

Citation details

Maureen Walsh, 'Gibbs, Cecilia May (1877–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibbs-cecilia-may-6373/text10869, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kelly, Cecilia May
  • Cottman, Stan
Birth

17 January 1877
Sydenham, Kent, England

Death

27 November 1969
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation