(also worked as Sam Cottman)
Born Kent, England
Died Sydney, Australia
By Lindsay Foyle
The first woman political cartoonist in Australia was probably May Gibbs. Her early cartoons appeared in The Social Kodak, a small magazine devoted to the women's moment published in Perth in 1902, before it was absorbed into the Western Critic. The people on that magazine no doubt never believed that one of their contributors who signed herself Blob would become one of the countries’ most important illustrator and cartoonist and the author of children's stories.
In January 1914 May Gibbs had her first cover illustration published in the magazine called The Lone Hand. Others followed in September and again in December 1915. The significance of these illustrations was that they were the first to use what were to become her gum nut babies. Gibbs was born in Kent, England in 1877 and moved to Adelaide with her parents and two brothers in 1881. The family moved again in 1885 to Harvey a small town south of Perth. In Perth Gibbs father found work as a newspaper cartoonist and later became the drawing master at Perth High before taking up employment in 1891 with the Lands and Survey Department. In 1889 when Gibbs was only 12 she had a full-page vignette illustration published in the West Australian Bulletin.
In 1901 Gibbs went back to England and attended art school for a few years while her parents were visiting there. When she returned to Perth she drew advertisements for the newspapers and did cartoons for The Social Kodak. She returned to England in 1909 and continued to draw cartoons (under her real name May Gibbs) in the suffragette newspaper The Common Cause. Back in Western Australia, Gibbs contributed humorous quick sketches on topical events to the weekly paper The Western Mail and in 1913 for six months contributed a comic strip.
Late in 1913 she moved to Sydney where Angus & Robinson commissioned her to illustrate a number of books. It was around this time she started doing work for The Lone Hand. In 1916 Gibbs published her first book Gum Nut Babies and followed it with Gun Blossom Babies. Snugglepot and cuddlepie, little Ragged Blossom and Little Obelia followed in 1918, 1920 and 1921. They sold more than 125,000 copies. The four books were put together as The Snugglepot Omnibus in 1940 and were later enlarged in 1946 as The Complete Adventures of Sugglepot and Cuddepie and this book has never been out of print.
In 1924 Gibbs produced Wee Gumnut Babies (latter renamed Bib and Bub) her first children's comic strip which was published in the Sunday Sun and continued weekly in newspapers all over Australia until 1967.
In 1924 Syd Nicholls was called to Errol Knox's office. He was the editor of the Sunday News and he wanted Nicholls to evaluate the work of a freelance artist. She had called into the office trying to convince the editor to run a comic she had drawn. Nicholls had not met her before and she was introduced as Mrs. Kelly.
In an interview with Maureen Walsh in the 1970's, Nicholls recalled that meeting. "Mrs. Kelly seemed to me a bit of an old bird to be entering the comic strip game in her mid-forties. Anyway, I looked at her work. The gumnuts were quite unique, there was nothing like them in the world. They were not fairies, they were not caricatures, but reflected everyone we know.
"From an artistic standpoint alone, her work had all the essentials of fine workmanship, perspective, anatomy, structure and composition, with simplicity of a talented cartoonist. Why not? She was a graduate of the Blackburn School of Art in London, when I was a kid. I wondered if she could keep up the pace for newspaper deadlines, but that was Knox's problem. When I looked up, her twinkling brown eyes returned my gaze with a puckish grin of confidence that later confirmed my opinion - she could read your mind. My reply to Knox's unasked question was, "When does she start?” My editor replied, "Why not now!"
So, Mrs. Kelly or May Gibbs as she was better known, was commissioned by the Sunday News at five pounds a half page comic strip, with four weeks strips to be supplied in advance. Her contract was for one year with the option to extend it. Also, Gibbs kept the syndication rights, so she could sell the strip in other states and she also held the rights to the strip for books.
On 11 October 1953 the Sunday Sun was merged with the Sunday Herald to form the Sun-Herald. October 1953.
During the 1920s several collections of her comics were published in book form some in colour and some in black and white. She retired in 1968 and died a year later at the age of 93.
May Gibbs entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2011.
- The Story of Australian Art, Angus & Robertson 1934
- Fifty Years of Australian Cartooning, The Journalists’ Club 1964
- Panel by Panel, Cassell Australia 1979
- The Inked-in Image, Hutchinson of Australia 1979
- May Gibbs: Mother of the Gumnuts, Cornstalk Publishing1985
- May Gibbs: Gumnut Classics, Cornstalk Publishing 1985
- Artists and Cartoonists: In Back and White, Australian National University 1999
- May Gibbs: More than a Fairy Tale, Hardie Grant Books 2011
- 2018 Cartoon Exhibition, Australian Cartoonists’ Association
- From Sunbeams to Sunset, Comicoz 2019
- Inked: Australian Cartoons, National Library of Australia 2019