cartoonist and illustrator, was born on 17 January 1877 at Sydenham, Kent, England, only daughter of Cecilia, née Rogers, and Herbert William Gibbs , artist, cartoonist and public servant, who had married when both were art students. May arrived at Adelaide with her mother and brothers in the Hesperus on 31 October 1881, following her father who had come out in June. They moved to WA in 1885 and lived on a farm at Claremont until moving to Perth in 1889 where May attended Amy Best’s School for Young Ladies. Her watercolour, A Festival 1891 (ill. Walsh 33), survives with a teacher’s comments on the drawing. Her father had been producing satirical cartoons of the social and political scene in Perth and, influenced by him May had been drawing comical sketches of members of the household since the Claremont days (examples Walsh 30 & 43). Her first published illustration, Little Folks , appeared in the W.A. Bulletin in 1889 (ill. Walsh p.30) aged 12 as the result of winning a competition. May sketched portraits of her family, e.g. brother and mother drawings 1893 (ill Walsh 34), did still life and landscape paintings in watercolour and made Xmas cards (Australian Christmas greetings for 1890 of naked children in the bush, ill. Walsh 32) etc. – with increased enthusiasm after the Wilgie Club was founded in 1890 by her father, Bernard Woodward (Director WA Museum), G. Temple Poole and H.C. Prinsep , which encouraged young artists to submit their work for help and criticism.

In 1894 May attended an artists’ camp at Undercliff set up by Prinsep. That year she began painting in oils 'anything at all – trying to get beyond the sticky stage… painting plaques to hang on walls and earning enough to keep myself in all but chemist bills’ (quoted Walsh 38). She also painted scenery and made set designs for local amateur productions (Walsh, 35). In the mid-1890s she was attending classes at the infant AGWA. One of her first sequential cartoon drawings is a tale of a bicycle collision, How They Met or The ups and downs of life c.1900 (Walsh 44).

In 1900 May left Perth with her mother to continue her studies in London. She spent a year at the Cope & Nichol Art School in South Kensington and attended regular night classes at the Chelsea Polytechnic Institute, plus half-hours at the Albert and Victoria Studios, South Kensington where students could draw the nude for free. A large, undated surviving female nude study in pencil (Gibbs Paper, ML V*ART 90) looks like an early art-school work.

After returning to Perth May did a few fashion illustrations in the West Australian . Then, with Herbert’s help, she was commissioned to draw some cartoons in 1902-3 for the WA magazine Social Kodak (later incorporated into the Westralian Critic ), initially under the pseudonym 'Blob’, e.g. Social Kodak 14 (28 August), 18 (25 September) 1902 (microfilm in ABN). Cover illustrations include: If it’s not our own Knight. 14 August 1902, a stylish caricature of a politician sympathetic to women’s suffrage; Would he were fatter 21 August 1902; You supply the music, Kingey, and Georgie’ll dance 28 August 1902; A picture without words 4 September 1902; Shakespeare (modernised) 11 September 1902; Guardy fulfils his promise 18 September 1902; Paradise Lost 25 September 1902 (and see illustrations Walsh 55).

This made Gibbs Australia’s first woman cartoonist, according to Foyle, although at least one published Australian woman preceded her (Little/Scott) – probably with only a single example, however – and many unpublished amateur cartoonists (Campbell, Atkinson) and professional cartoonists with Australian connections who published in other countries (Claxton, Roth). But she was certainly Australia’s first resident professional woman cartoonist and caricaturist and the first Australian woman known to have drawn local political cartoons.

The years 1904-5 were again spent in London, studying at the Chelsea Polytechnic – briefly including classes under Augustus John. Disliking both this 'picture of Christ in a check suit’ and 'his nudes’ (see caricature Walsh p.68), she soon returned to Borough Johnson’s classes, her tutor from her earliest days at the Poly. She graduated in 1905 with first class passes in every category. At the same time, May attended Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists at 123 Victoria Street, Westminster for a term – a good if highly competitive place for magazine, newspaper and publishing house contacts. But when her mother and brother arrived in London in 1905, May returned to Perth.

Back at home she became a regular cartoonist on the Western Mail , WA’s leading newspaper, which was edited by Robert Robertson who was married to author and outspoken women’s rights leader Agnes Robertson, who arranged the interview with her husband after seeing May’s work. She took over doing the front-page cartoon from Ben Strange , according to Walsh, although his biography notes that he remained there until c.1930 without interruption except for the Boer War. Juliana Bayfield, librarian, and Jane Brummitt (a Gibbs relative) at the Children’s Library Research Collection, SLSA, have identified her cartoons, beginning with the cover of the 1905 Christmas number, a patriotic WA image of a toy-laden Father Christmas greeting a well-dressed woman leading two Black Swans on leashes. In 1906 she did: Some Impressions of the Ball (fancy dress), The Highest Culture (university extension lectures), Tennis Champion – and Some Others , The Tennis Carnival – Some Zoo Courts Impressions (of women), After the Tennis Carnival – “The March of the Victors” , A Memory of the Royal Agricultural Show – Jones’s Dream and the cover of the 1906 Western Mail Christmas number – a cupid leading a goanna and a crinolined lady with black swans, not a topical gag (ill. Walsh 69: checked SLSA by Samantha Littley: copies of all but last in file).

The Gibbs Papers in ML include several original early cartoons (unpublished and mostly undated), e.g. Sketches from a Perth Sketchbook 1906 (shown in 'People’ in 1999 SLNSW exhibition) and Perth Celebrities 1906 (shown in Artists and Cartoonists at SHE) – a gag about eminent people who are the opposite of our expectations, including a (male) cartoonist weeping as he works. They look like drawings for the Western Mail but were never published (according to the SLSA researchers) so perhaps were rejects – which explains why Gibbs had them since copyright and ownership of drawings was vested in the commissioning paper until the 1960s. A darker, more powerful realist drawing in the Gibbs Papers shows an old raddled woman beggar in the street being ignored by a pretty young thing. (Prostitutes? Present and future – a prefiguration of Norman Lindsay’s most famous b/w work?)

Cartoons published in the Western Mail in 1907 include Some Variations Of a Prominent Cricketer and a Few Other Brilliant Players (30 March), described in the 'Cricket Notes’ of the paper as

A page of sketches by Miss May Gibbs dealing with the test matches. The “prominent cricketer,” of course, is “Bobbie” Selk whose peculiarity in bowling with his sleeve down is made much use of by the artist. Eyers, the local wicket keeper is also conspicuous in the sketches. Others caricatured are McIntyre, the New South Wales wicket keeper, Parker, and Ernie Jones.

Some Memory Impressions of Professor Henderson caricatures an Adelaide professor of Modern History and English Language who was such a popular lecturer that audiences of 1,000 to 1,500 were reported at his Perth series on 'Hamlet and the Shakespearean Drama’. Gibbs’s page of seven caricatures was published in the Western Mail on 15 June 1907 (copy in file). The Secret of Perpetual Youth , caricaturing a speech given by visiting lecturer Miss Jessie Ackerman, shows the speaker as a rather grumpy old woman lecturing to an audience of other grumpy old women. Her cover of the 1907 Christmas number shows Father Christmas in a pith helmet and a young woman personifying Summer with fan and thermometer who rides through the clouds on a Christmas pudding being pulled along by white geese labelled 'Hope’, 'Love’, Luck’, 'Prospects’, 'Joy’, and 'Success’, guided by two cherubs, 'Luck’ and 'Love’. Another cherub rides a turkey and waves a pith helmet labelled '1908’. The group is surrounded by champagne bottles and bonbons with wings. In the same issue Gibbs decorated a page of photographs depicting Pearling in the Nor [sic] West and contributed a number of other drawings, including Christmas Carols (a couple in bed, the man asleep, the woman woken by a choir of cats). “Way down upon the Swanee River” is captioned, 'The above sketches are typical of holiday life around Perth’; it includes scenes such as 'Some swimmers at play’, 'On the Pier’, and 'At the rivers [sic] edge’). 'The one unwanted gift ', also in the 1907 Christmas number, shows Father Christmas on a stepladder holding out a cupid in a bird’s cage ignored by men, women and children absorbed in seemingly inappropriate gifts. A little girl pores over tomes by Aristotle, Darwin and Carlyle, grandparents play with a toy train, women admire cricket bats, cigars and rifles while men twirl parasols and hold boxes of sweets and cookery books. All are uninterested in love. (KEEN ON INVERSIONS)

What is a Hat of 25 January 1908 is made up of caricatures of women in hats accompanied by short, witty verse matching each style to a personality type. A Few Impressions of Some of the English Cricketers of 14 March 1908 is captioned:

The above is a topical contribution, in view of the return visit of the English cricketers, who commenced their match with Western Australia on Friday. Cricket enthusiasts will recognise the players whom Miss Gibbs has caricatured, all of them having appeared on the Association Ground, East Perth. The sketches of Barnes, Young, and Humphries are fine, while Jones and Blythe are also faithfully portrayed.

The series On the Beach at Cottesloe (25 April) includes 'If you like things gay/ Choose a public holiday’, with a dour looking couple sitting on a bench on the pier, and 'If happy kids delight you more/ Shoals there are upon the shore’, where an old man is being buried in the sand by a group of children. Another series image is Sketches at the Royal Agricultural Show . Her cartoons appeared in the Western Mail until October 1908.

With the financial security of regular work May could also develop her talents for the fine arts and try writing short stories and a play. In 1907 she exhibited five watercolours in the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work at Melbourne, including one described as a 'clever study’ (Moore, 1907). Agnes Robertson interested her in the women’s rights movement and she illustrated 'Women’s Position in the State’ by 'One of Them’, a strong article in the Western Mail in 1907 deploring the status of women in WA. Walsh (71) claims:

She was never a dedicated feminist, even though on many occasions her work was commissioned by the women’s movement. As she said, many years later, “I never thought of myself other than as an individual and I was never anti-man.” (But see comments and verse about men and love at the time in Walsh 78-79 and her English suffrage work)

Sometime after October 1908 she was replaced on the Western Mail by Ida S. Rentoul ( Outhwaite ) who was given the 1908 Christmas page. May was furious. In November 1909 she embarked for England with her mother and cousin Evangeline on the steamer Persic . Back at London she continued to work as an illustrator while studying art. She found an agent, Charles H. Wood, who got her a commission with George Harrup and Company to illustrate a book, Georgian England , for forty pounds, followed by The Struggle for the Crown . She lived in an attic flat in London and again attended night classes at Chelsea Poly under Borough Johnson.

As always, she spent holidays with her mother’s family, especially Cecie’s sister Emily Hadfield, who had been an art teacher before her marriage. Her portrait of her pensive child cousin Alice Hadfield, drawn in profile with pencil and pastels in 1910, shows what a consummate draughtsman she was (SLSA?). Her humour is evident in the illustrated letters and comic postcards she sent throughout her life, often including self-derogatory caricatures, e.g. postcard caricature 1911 (ill. Walsh 83, also used in Heritage ). She finally found a publisher for her Mimie and Wog children’s fantasy story by transposing the original Australian setting to London and remaking the heroine, now called Mamie; it appeared as About Us in London and NY in 1912.

May promoted the cause of Women’s Suffrage through feminist cartoons, now signed with her own name in an oval (although Walsh states that this was paid work secured for her by her agent – which seems unlikely, certainly for Common Cause ). In 1911 for the Christian Commonwealth , subtitled 'The Organ of the Progressive Movement in Religion and Social Ethics’, she caricatured public debates, such as Hilaire Belloc and Ramsey MacDonald debating socialism (3 May, cover). Both are drawn in profile, with Belloc leaning forward with his hands on the table and MacDonald swiping his arm across his chest to make a point. Most notable was her caricature of the two protagonists in the famous debate on women’s suffrage between Miss Cicely Hamilton and G.K. Chesterton on 12 April 1911. Years later Gibbs recalled the occasion (quoted Walsh, p.86):

The small Queen’s Hall was filled and I had to stand leaning against the wall, one knee up to hold my book while I sketched. G.B. Shaw was sitting a few rows from me.

Cicely Hamilton was a novelist and writer of feminist plays and destined to become a representative of women’s rights at the League of Nations. Her manner was intensely nervous and she had a way of flinging down her soul as a gauntlet, that would have put her at the mercy of any debater keener on scoring points and less like Mr Chesterton, a happy philosopher revelling in his own philosophy.

Miss Hamilton introduced herself as thirty years of age and unmarried and when I looked about the crowd, I realised there were a lot of us in the same state.

Most of her English cartoons were drawn for The Common Cause, The Organ of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS 1909-12), the first and largest of the women’s suffrage societies, edited by Christobel Pankhurst (SU has microfilm of 1911 volume only; SLSA have located good cartoons c.1911: microfilm Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide. No others found in Sydney. Small caricature heads of Mr Cameron Corbett and Mr Lansbury appeared on 11 March 1911 (p.815) and more cover drawings signed 'May Gibbs’ (in oval) were also published that year. Statics and Dynamics , her cartoon of the debate between Miss Cicely Hamilton and Mr G.K. Chesterton, appeared there first on 13 April 1911. Youthful Errors (Master Winston Churchill opposing the bill to limit women or young persons working in a shop more than 60 hours a week) was published on 4 May, The House that George Built [John Bull and Mrs Bull with 'House Agent’ Lloyd George] on 6 July; Reversed Arms [man holding sandwich boards that state 'Women do NOT want votes’ upside down] on 13 July; Taxation and Representation ['Pit Brow Girl’ and 'Representative of the “People”’] on 17 August; and Two Johnnies [John Chinaman who is anti-suffrage, and John Bull who is pro-suffrage] on 31 August 1911 (all Fisher Research Library, Sydney University).

Health problems again brought Gibbs back to Australia in 1913. She returned with Rene Heames, a telephonist and socialist who was a close friend from the Women’s Suffrage movement, and they settled in Sydney. May re-established contact with the Western Mail when they stopped over in Perth for a few weeks en route to Sydney and began a series of satirical cartoons for them, e.g. three pairs of images on mixed bathing 'yesterday’ and 'today’, December 1913 (ill. Ryan, p.15). She lived with Heames in a boarding house in Ben Boyd Road, Neutral Bay, and worked in the city in her 'Little Studio’ high up at 4 Bridge Street while Heames got a job as a telephonist at the GPO. They travelled to town by ferry each day.

May was immediately commissioned to illustrate the cover of Eleanor Mack’s novel Scribbling Sue for Angus & Robertson and further work for the firm followed. Editor Frank Fox commissioned her to draw a black swan of WA for Lone Hand and editor W.R. Charlton gave her a trial cover of the Sydney Mail to complete, which led to the offer of a further 25 covers – the most substantial contract she had hitherto received. Covers for August 1913 ( The Mate of the Wakarool , a character study to illustrate a short story) and April 1914 (a kookaburra with gumnut babies) are illustrated in Walsh (p.92). She also did headpieces and story illustrations inside the paper.

Her first publications about anthropomorphised Australian bush creatures and wildflowers, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum Blossom Babies , appeared with Angus & Robertson in December 1916. Her gumnuts were an instant success and subsequently appeared in books, magazine illustrations, on magazine covers, as bookmarks and as postcards (the last especially during WWI). {Her 'Gumnut Family’ c.1923 (original ML PXD 738/89) was included in the 'Sex’ section of the 1999 SLNSW b/w exhibition.} The first edition of her Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) rapidly sold 17,000 copies. In December 1914 the Sydney Morning Herald summed up their appeal (quote Walsh):

That she uses all Australian flower and leaf forms in her artistic work is one of the chief charms which Miss May Gibbs manages to infuse in all she does.

This kind of work is so womanly, in the best sense, that it is a fresh proof of the deep feeling for nature, which is nourished by living in such beautiful surroundings as we enjoy in Sydney.

It is in the loving and fanciful treatment, with its quaint turn of humour given to our Christmas flowers by Miss Gibbs, that she catches the fancy of her admirers. As a woman artist “with a way of her own”, Miss Gibbs has carefully made her mark.

On a visit to Perth in 1919 May met and later married Bertram James Ossoli Kelly (known as J.O.), a mining agent. They moved to Sydney and J.O. became May’s business manager. In 1925 they built a house, Nutcote, at Neutral Bay where May was to live and work for the rest of her life.

May drew Bib and Bub , a comic strip about her gumnuts, from 1924 [1925?] to getting five guineas a strip while Jimmy Bancks was getting £40-50 for Ginger Meggs . That may explain why her next comic strip, Tiggy Touchwood , appeared in the Sun {or Sunday News ?} under the pseudonym 'Stan Cottman’. Following the merger of the Sunday Sun and the Sunday Herald to become the Sun Herald in 1953, her payment was raised to about six guineas then never improved (in 1966 it was converted to $13.65 with the introduction of decimal currency). According to Walsh, in August 1925, after Sunday News editor Errol Knox had Gibbs and her proposal vetted by Syd Nicholls (see Walsh 146 – apparently quoting from Nicholls’s autobiography), the first Bib and Bub comic strip appeared. She produced one strip a week for over 40 years. Initially with a contract for 12 months, she was paid five pounds per half page strip, plus syndication. The Adelaide Mail took it within a month for four guineas, and by November 1925 it was appearing across the Tasman in the Auckland New Zealand Herald (four pounds). The Melbourne Star paid three guineas, Townsville residents read it in the Northern Queensland Register for £3, while the Courier Mail – then called the Daily Mail – paid £2.12s.6d for the delectation of Brisbane readers. In 1926 the Daily News in Perth secured the WA rights. After two years, the strip became full page and the Sunday News raised its payment to £10. From August 1925 her Gumnut Gossip – words with small illustration – also appeared in the paper at 30/- a column; 205 appeared between 1925 and 1930, then the column was transferred to Women’s Budget . Her next strip Tiggy Touchwood , appeared in the rival Sunday Sun from 5 September 1925 under the pseudonym 'Stan Cottman’; this was at the insistence of the editor of the Sunday News where Bib and Bub continued to run. In 1929 May earned £2068 in newspaper fees but in February 1930 the Guardian took over the Sunday Sun and by April May’s income and the Tiggy Touchwood strip was halved. Other places also cut their prices and in 1931, after the News and Sun merged with Ginger Meggs winning the cover, May took away both strips. The gumnuts continued only in Qld, NZ and SA. Bib and Bub reappeared in the Sydney Sun from 25 June 1933 replacing Syd Nicholls’s Us Fellers . By 1935 Bancks was Australia’s highest paid cartoonist, receiving £40 to £50 a week for Ginger Meggs while Gibbs got five guineas for Bib and Bub . Following the merger of the Sunday Sun and Sunday Herald in 1953, the fee was raised to six guineas, where it stayed – even in 1966 as its equivalent in decimal currency ($13.65). Amongst her notes is the jotting: 'The artist who died of drawing gumnuts while she wanted to draw clouds’.}

Gibbs contributed drawings elsewhere too, but the Australian market was small and publications ephemeral. For instance, the writers’ journal Ink published her drawing of bush creatures in a barber’s shop in its first issue (1932, 23) – which was also its last.

She aimed for a painting career, but was unsuccessful there too. She not very social and had little to do with other artists, but nevertheless exhibited with the Society of Women Painters in 1920 and 1921. The portrait of her husband in the first show received lukewarm reviews. In 1922 and 1923 she and J.O. attended the first two artists’ balls but found the second 'a disgusting affair’ and never attended again. She continued to paint portraits privately, but when she sent a favourite portrait of Dr Throsby, a North Shore medico, to a Society of Artists’ annual exhibition (c.1924?) it was rejected and she refused to submit work again.

J.O. Kelly died in August 1939. On 9 June 1955, Gibbs was awarded the MBE for her contribution to children’s literature. On 8 April 1967 she wrote 'No. 1968 last cartoon’ on a strip and some months later the gumnuts disappeared from the press; the final one being run in black and white in two parts on 9 and 10 September 1967 (ill. Walsh 207). In March 1969 the Commonwealth Literary Fund, chaired by Gough Whitlam, granted her a pension of $21 a week. She died on 27 November 1969, aged 92. Childless, she willed all her papers and copyright to the NSW Society for Crippled Children and the Spastic Centre of NSW. Her home Nutcote at Neutral Bay is now a (struggling) museum in her memory, chiefly supported by North Sydney Council.

Callaway, Anita
Date written:
Last updated: