Woman Gibbs, Cecilia May (1877 - 1969)


17 January 1877
Sydenham, Kent, England
27 November 1969
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Cartoonist, Illustrator and Writer
Alternative Names
  • Stan Cottman (pseudonym)

Written by Dorothy Erickson, Independent Scholar

Cecilia May Gibbs was a leading painter, illustrator, cartoonist and author, usually known by her second name, May. She was born in 1877 in Sydenham, England, the daughter of artists Cecilia Rogers and Herbert Gibbs. In 1881 she accompanied her mother to South Australia to join Herbert who had gone ahead to establish a farming property. May was educated by her parents and by tutors and as a young girl had sketchbooks filled with drawings. In 1885 the family moved to take up a property at Harvey in Western Australia where she became entranced by the unusual flora. When the family moved from Harvey to Perth in 1887 she attended Amy Best's school for girls.

The family formed a prominent part of Perth's art and musical establishments. From the age of twelve May Gibbs' drawings appeared in local newspapers and she exhibited with the Wilgie Sketch Club in their exhibition in 1890. She also painted wildflowers, portraits and scenes. In 1900 she went to England and studied under Augustus John for four years at the London art school of Cope and Nichol, at the Chelsea Polytechnic, and at various other night schools. She exhibited paintings of Western Australian wildflowers in the Western Australian court of the 1900 Paris Exposition and at Glasgow International Exhibition in 1902 when she also won the Barnett Bros Prize and the E. J. Dean-Smith Prize at the WA Society of Arts Annual Exhibition.

When she returned to Perth in 1904 May undertook illustrations for the Western Mail, designing postcards and drawing cartoons. She later returned to London where she studied at the Henry Blackburn School for Black and White Art. Because of her health, she returned to Perth for several years returning to London in 1909. Here she secured work as an illustrator for Harrap & Co and found a publisher for her first children's story, About Us. She also drew cartoons for the suffragette movement. Ill health caused her to return to Australia and she moved to Sydney in 1913 accompanied by her friend Rene Hames. In 1916 she published the first of her famous Gumnut Babies books and became a household name. Gum-Blossom Babies followed in 1917 and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, published in 1918, was an immediate success.

In 1919 Gibbs met and married James Ossoli Kelly a retired mining agent. They built their home 'Nutcote' at Neutral Bay, where May lived and worked for the rest of her life. She wrote more books and drew cartoon strips for the Sydney papers, which she also syndicated overseas, while continuing with portrait painting for which she was known. She published her last book, Prince Dande Lion in 1953 and was appointed an MBE in 1955. Gibbs died childless in 1969 leaving her estate primarily to the NSW Society for Crippled Children, the Spastic Centre of NSW and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. Her artworks are held by the City of South Perth and at her home 'Nutcote' in Sydney, which is open to the public. Her well- loved children's books with their delightful drawings remain an enduring legacy.

Published Resources


  • Kerr, Joan, Heritage : the national women's art book, 500 works by 500 Australian women artists from colonial times to 1955, Craftsman House, Sydney, New South Wales, 1995. Details

Edited Books

Online Resources