Imagine seven tiny baby faces hiding behind leaves. On top of each child’s head, half of a nut acts as a hat and allows them to camouflage into the background depicting the outdoors. These babies gap in amazement and are dazzled to earn your attention. You are staring at artwork from Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, a treasure of Australian literature. Whilst gazing, you observe the soft colours and lines giving shape to the seven baby faces. These establish a tranquil and joyful viewing experience; it is reminiscent of both childhood and Australia.
The illustrator is the talented May Gibbs – the genius behind The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – and Australia’s first professional illustrator for children. Born in 1877, Gibbs left England to Australia with her parents four years later on board the Hesperus. After years of failed farming in Southern and Western Australia, the Gibbs family found themselves in Perth, where May observed the bushlands while undergoing childhood. With her keen and creative eye, May Gibbs used her imagination to transform the Australian bush into lands of magic and wonder. She later won an Arts Prize at the Perth Wild Flower Show at fifteen years old. Her aptitude for botanic art promised future greatness, and in 1900, Gibbs returned to the soon-Edwardian London for further grounding in the visual arts. Here, she worked hard at the Cope and Nichol Art School and the Chelsea Polytechnic Institute until her health declined. She soon returned to Perth, recovered, and provided social commentary and clever illustrations for the Western Australian magazine, Social Kodak, under a pseudonym.
Yet London loomed and Gibbs eventually returned to the English capital. This allowed her to complete her studies and achieve first-class honours. These trips to the United Kingdom emphasised a crucial aspect to May Gibbs’s legacy: her brilliant ability to bring European ideas on folklore, fairytale and fable to Australia, a wild and promising country found in the South Pacific. May Gibbs worked and lived during the renaissance of children’s literature. This was the time of The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett and the sentimental illustrations from Edmund Dulac. Across Britain, children snuggled in their beds to tales about Peter Pan, Wendy, and Tinkerbell. Edith Nesbitt, ever clever and charming, wrote the Railway Children and thus enchanted the childhood of millions. Gibbs would later do this, too. But first she had to discover the Blue Mountains.
In 1913, May Gibbs moved to Neutral Bay, Sydney where the bushlands birthed tiny gumnut babies in her imagination. These are of course, the famous Gumnut babies and are today, a staple of Australian literature. Gibbs’ stories are consistent best-sellers among Australia’s many bookstores and have even inspired Australian designer duo, Romance Was Born, a year after the hundredth anniversary of Snugglepot & Cuddlepie: Their Adventures Wonderful was published by Angus & Robertson. The State Library of NSW has a fantastic collection of Gibb’s original illustrations, writings, and cartoons. After visiting here, one can take the train from Martin Place to Circular Quay, and then venture onwards via a ferry to Kurraba Point, where the May Gibbs home lies. Her former home is called ‘the Nutcote cottage’ and is now a museum showcasing Gibb’s life and work. Much to the enjoyment of children and adults, there are frequent events hosted by the Nutcote Cottage from the Gumnut Fair in November to Wattle High Tea in early spring. Outside, the Nutcote Gardens delight visitors with the variety of Australian flowers and plants.
There’s even a sign saying ‘Welcome to Nutcote. This garden is a bee and bird friendly cottage garden. Enjoy your day.’ The whimsical and sentimental tone is not only charming, but also welcoming to visitors, for Nutcote Cottage demonstrates the love May Gibbs felt towards the Australian bush. Today, authors ranging from Richard Flanagan to Kate Grenville communicate the wonders, and at times terrors, lurking among the bushlands of Australia. Gibbs, meanwhile, demonstrated the joy one experiences when immersed among wattle and fig. Her literature and illustrations remind us of the magic and wonder present within Australia’s diverse flora and fauna.
In a wise world, we would interpret May Gibbs’ work as a call for gratitude towards the Australian landscape, and take it upon ourselves to look after it. Not everyone will do this, of course. Yet the next time I see wattle, I’ll think of the glorious, yellow wattle babies and how their good nature brightens a winter’s day.
Pictures From The State Library of NSW