One of the recent testaments to the unwaning popularity of May Gibbs (1877- 1969), a celebrated Australian artist, illustrator and children’s book author, was the official gift from the people of Australia to the first son of the Australian-born Princess Mary of Denmark. In 2005 Princess Mary, her husband Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and their newborn son were presented with the mint copy of the first 1918 edition of May Gibbs’s most popular book “Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”, an all-time favourite Australian classic and a prominent part of Australian folklore.
The vintage “Alphabet Book” reviewed in this post is illustrated with images of the forerunners of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – quintessentially Australian bush babies also known as Gumnuts. At the time when fantasy writing for children was dominated by pixies, elves, gnomes and leprechauns (the European counterparts of bush babies) the Australian bush spirit-land born by the imagination of May Gibbs was entirely original.
May was 4 years old when her family immigrated to Australia from England. Both her parents were amateur artists, their house has been frequented by artists and musicians. ‘I could almost draw before I could walk”, May recalled, having been always supported and encouraged by her parents. She was well educated, including in art schools in England, and grew up independent and free spirited.
Not interested in the life of a housewife (though she did get married), May pursued a career in freelance illustration and later in writing for children, excelling on both fronts. Well aware of her worth she took care of her own affairs with a business acumen unusual for a woman of her times. She negotiated “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie” royalties with her publisher Angus & Robertson at 12.5%. At the same time reputable Australian writer and artist Banjo Paterson and Norman Lindsay were only getting 10%. May Gibbs didn’t stop there and pushed for 15% for her later books, an unheard of royalty rate at the time..
A strong advocate for respecting natural world May Gibbs has studied the Australian bush to an extent no artist has probably done before her. Building on her excellent early botanical drawings she came up with an idea of Gumnuts while thinking about the design for a bookmark. Here’s how she recalled this pivotal moment, which kick-started her journey of creating something that would go on to permanently embed itself into Australian consciousness and folklore:
” I thought of the Australian gumleaf, which was an ideal shape for a bookmark and a pretty thing. If only I could make it interesting on both sides. In the middle of the night I awoke, and, in fancy, saw peeping over a long gumleaf, a little bush sprite with a gumnut on its head. I painted them and Lucy Peacock of the Roycroft Library sold them for me at 5s each. They bacame so popular, later we printed them and sold thousands for 6d each.”
The first Gumnuts have made appearances on the cover of the prestigious literary magazine The Lone Hand, whose cover was the most sought after commission amongst illustrators and artists. May Gibbs has illustrated three of those between 1914 and 1916:
Gumnuts have also featured in wartime postcards designed by May Gibbs. The postcards aimed to help boost the morale of the Australians fighting in WWI raging in Europe and Middle East. They were included in the parcels with hand-knitted socks and woolen balaclavas, which the Australian Red Cross sent to the troops. The postcard captions reminded of love and affection of the families back home in Australia (“Your old aunts are very anxious about you”, “We’ll keep the Billy boiling, dear till you come marching home”). Others were playful and cheeky, like the two below showing the crying girls left behind by the Gumnut Corps cheering “We’ll make things hum, by gum!”
The growing popularity of bush babies characters has eventually led to a series of 5 small picture books. The first two, “Gumnut Babies” and “Gum-Blossom Babies”, were published in December 2016 and sold out immediately. The other three titles in the series – “Boronia Babies”, “Wattle Babies” and “Flannel Flowers and Other Bush Babies” – were likewise a great commercial success.
During the war and depressed post-war times the economics of publishing demanded more efficient ways of production and May Gibbs was commissioned to design several composite pictures of her bush folk in various scenes and settings. These pictures (like the two reproduced below) were economically printed on one sheet, then their separate elements and fragments were cut out and used to produce cards and calendars.
The “Alphabet book” reviewed in this post is illustrated with the fragments from the two composite pictures shown above and a few illustrations from May’s Gumnut babies picture books series. It’s easy to fall in love with these irresistibly cute creatures. Their innocent “alphabetic” pursuits are down-to-earth. Bush babies go about their affairs in their realistically detailed bush world mirroring the pursuits, concerns and preoccupation of all young children out there. This must be why children never tire of these little people and their stories.
If I was to choose a favorite picture here it would be the “Rescuing” one below. It reminds me of a few months in my own son’s early childhood, when we’ve been watching a (particularly resilient) moth living in our bathroom. Every night bath time started with spotting “mothy” on the bathroom walls and saying “Hi!” to her.
For other Alphabet books review click on this link.