Listen: Alison Wishart chats all things May Gibbs with Laura & Duncan. Above: May Gibbs’ self portrait, and some of her iconic art works.
If you grew up reading stories of May Gibbs’ wide-eyed, adorable Gumnut and Gum Blossom Babies, then you’ll love the exhibition now on at the State Library of NSW – May Gibbs: Celebrating 100 Years.
The display includes artworks not only from the famous Gumnut Babies works, but art spanning Gibbs’ entire artistic career.
May Gibbs’ career took off when, in 1916, the Gumnut Babies and Gum Blossom Babies booklets were published by a printer—a prelude to the more famous Snugglepot and Cuddlepie of 1918.
Gumnut Babies Created to Send Love to Troops at War
State Library curator Alison Wishart explained that Gibbs first printed work was a series of postcards featuring small gumnut-like characters that she wanted Australians to be able to send to the soldiers who were abroad fighting in the First World War.
“She managed to convince a printer to print the postcards before she even had the money to pay him for them,” Alison said.
The Gumnut Babies booklet was then created as a mail-friendly Christmas gift for Australians to send to relatives and friends in the UK, to show off elements of Australia’s native landscape. They were a big hit.
“I think at the time people wanted an escape from the horrors of the First World War, and the Gumnut Babies and Gum Blossom Babies are so beautiful and innocent and childlike,” Alison said.
“I think she really does do authentic Australian flora and fauna, even though they’re anthropomorphised – which means the animals [and flora] are treated like people and speak and do human things. She creates the goodies and baddies and that wonderful tried but true narrative ploy of good triumphing over evil.”
A Struggling Artist who Never Gave up
May Gibbs was born in the UK and migrated to Australia by ship with her parents when she was four years old, settling in a bush suburb outside Perth.
Later in life she travelled to London three times to train at art schools to try and better her chances at an art career, and was 38 years old living in Sydney when her first book was finally published.
“May Gibbs had a lot of rejection before she ‘struck it lucky’ or was at the right place at the right time with the right product.”
“She really struggled as an artist at first, so take heart if you’re a struggling author or artist,” Alison said. “May Gibbs had a lot of rejection before she ‘struck it lucky’ or was at the right place at the right time with the right product. Her work is exceptionally beautiful and well executed.”
Catch the Exhibition
The May Gibbs: Celebrating 100 Years exhibition includes displays of both original works and prints, as well as children’s features like a gum-leaf trail, and gumnut characters hiding through the library. It runs until February 26.