Happy 100th birthday Gumnut Babies!

2016 marks the centenary of May Gibbs much-loved first book Gumnut Babies, making it the perfect year for a pilgrimage to Nutcote Museum, in Neutral Bay, Sydney.

Nutcote is May Gibbs’ former home and studio, designed and built for May and her husband James Osilli Kelly in 1924. It’s a beautifully maintained example of Australian art deco architecture and worth visiting in its own right. The house is perched on the edge of Sydney harbour and features the source of her inspiration; her beloved garden.

May moved to Western Australia from England at the age of four and had always been fascinated with fairies. Pastel-coloured English fairies however, were never going to survive in the harsh Australian sun. We needed fearless fairies; barefoot and bare bummed adventurous fairies, from the world of serrated banksia and breezy blue-green gums. This free-range bush childhood is reflected in May’s prodigious art.

She was first published in the Christmas Edition of Perth Bulletin at the age of 12. The double page spread featured her Little Folks for the first time, in the classic style of English illustrator Kate Greenaway, one of her strongest inspirations. And so the Gumnut Babies were born. The now iconic images of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie resonated with a young nation enthusiastically breaking ties with Britain and looking inward for new stories and recognisable heroes.

The urge to hunt for Gumnut babies is irresistible... I thought I heard a giggle from inside that fishing basket, let’s go see.

Inside Nutcote you can’t avoid the feeling that Gumnut eyes are spying on you from every nook and cranny. The furnishings and personal effects leave no doubt whose home you are visiting. May’s original artwork lines the walls. It feels like she has just popped into the kitchen to make some tea. Her easel, strewn with charcoal and banksia cones, stands before picture windows framing stunning views of Sydney harbour as it did almost a hundred years ago, although the skyline would be unrecognisable to her now.

May’s travel chest in the bedroom is bursting with a history of its own. The urge to hunt for Gumnut babies is irresistible. What was that sound?…

Children visiting the house will delight in searching for spying fairies. Did that cotton reel just wobble? I thought I heard a giggle from inside that fishing basket, let’s go see.

Ephemera, mysterious scribbly gum messages and Scottie dogs intrigue and delight. A phone that can’t text, a stove with a fire inside and binoculars left by the window prompt a hundred questions. Stories in every room.

Nutcote is an adventure for children. The garden is open for picnics, story time and birthday parties complete with Gumnut dress up clothes. Every year on January 17th, May’s birthday is celebrated with birthday cake and Scottie dogs. You get the feeling that she would very much approve.

The museum is a living legacy of Australia’s favourite author and illustrator. The reverence she inspires is demonstrated by her army of dedicated volunteers who keep the house and garden in perfect order.

For young and old fans of children’s literature and illustration, a visit to Nutcote in 2016 is an absolute must. Take a picnic along or eat in the café on site and make a day of it.


*Tips: There is on-street parking available only, so be prepared to walk a short distance. The site is very steep and includes some steps. There are some lovely picnic spots nearby on the harbour foreshore. Take spending money for the gift shop. Keep your bags and pockets zipped, Gumnut babies are very resourceful.

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