Monday, February 19, 2007

May Gibbs (1877-1969) - Lighter and Darker Visions

May Gibbs was one of the few early illustrators and writers of children's books to use indigenous Australian bush images - both flora and fauna.

'The Big Bad Banksiamen and Mrs Cockatoo'

'Gumnut Babies' Watercolour Book Illustration

World War 1 Postcard

While many of Gibbs's local contempories continued to draw on British or European iconography. However, her work was still cast in a style typical to books in the 1920's for younger people:

'The Wattle Babies'

'The Society of Gumnut Artists'

'Gumblossom Babies'

These watercolours are not dissimilar to those of Beatrice Potter (1866-1943), particularly in terms of their anthropomorphoric nature:

Though Gibbs's images are perhaps more powder-puff and effete.

The children's book 'Bib and Bub Their Adventures' resulted from the great success in the early 1920's of a weekly comic strip series of the same name that Gibbs produced for 'The Funnies' pages of 'The Sydney Morning Herald'.

The format the strips is that of the first image of this post, 'The Big Bad Banksiamen and Mrs Cockatoo'. And that of the strip below - 'The Gumnut Inn and Guests' Shoes'. And the strips 'Mr Banksiaman, Tooth Extractor' and 'Mr Carpet Snake and the Mangle', further below.

'The Gumnut Inn and Guests' Shoes'

What is characteristic and newish about these images is the use is a rough and rustic 'art nouveau' style, a style based on the forms of the natural world. It is less polished than the finish of the watercolour plates of her books.

The characters are various. There are anthropomorhized bush creatures - clothed and upright-walking lizards, ducks, snakes, crickets and so on. And completely floral creatures, such as the Big Bad Banksiamen - the most scary in her work, being, in their obvious aboriginality, a form of subliminal racism! With the only completely human beings here, the infants - gumnut babies and wattle babies. Though these tiny people wear clothing made of materials from the natural world - gumnut hats and wattle flower dresses. And are therefore the reverse of the bush creatures in their cloth bonnets, lace-up boots and so on.

The text accompanying many of the story frames is in rhyming couplets. In the same rustic style as the images. Rather than in the usual industrial print.

And the content or themes of the strips are somewhat different to the books. There is shade as well as light. The evils and dangers in life are also present, but are not necessarily eradicated in the approved manner of children's stories. They remain, to be wary of and work around, like the dangers of the real world. Such as the dentist in:

'Mr Banksiaman, Tooth Extractor'

Though Gibbs is also not averse to a (gleefully?) approved death:

'Mr Carpet Snake and the Mangle'

I think this choice of subject matter is something to do with the publishing context and, subsequently, the audience. 'The Funnies' appeared in a daily newpaper and so the readers would be, in part, adult. The sometimes darker content seems to reflect this broader readership.

What started me on this odyssey was childhood memories of my grandmother's reading 'Bib and Bub' aloud to me - usually in a soft scary gleeful voice for maximum fright!!! She loved the rollicking rhyming and accompanied the recital with sudden pointings at characters and actions in the book. She was best with the Big Bad Banksiamen, giving me my first genuine nightmares. And perhaps the stuff of one of my big sexual fantasies: BIG BAD HAIRY MEN!


  1. You constantly surprise me.

  2. Indeed, you surprise us all....

    This is a great post, which shows us that memories and fantasies about are more than cock...and they take our minds to great places.

    thanks, Paul