Gumnut Illustration Essay

The gumnut babies

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography tells how Avis Acres' mid-1950s Hutu and Kawa mythos was inspired by the earlier "gumnut babies" of the Australian author and illustrator May Gibbs.  There's a good BibliOdyssey post from 2008 - Snugglepot and Cuddlepie - with examples of Gibbs' work.

I'm surprised there were no copyright issues, as the Hutu and Kawa mythos is strongly derivative of that of the gumnut babies. Both works feature a central duo of baby-like Caucasian plant fairies having adventures with ecological overtones amid well-observed Antipodian flora and fauna. In Gibbs' series, which started in 1918 with the publication of Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the babies are modelled on eucalyptus nuts and flowers (unlike the indeterminately-gendered Hutu and Kawa, they have two sexes: the girls wear hats and skirts, the boys hats and leaf loincloths). Despite the well-observed wildlife and botanical detail, though, these are not as naturalistic stories as those of Hutu and Kawa: the gumnut babies' activities pastiche the real world, with activities such as cricket matches, photography, ballet, life-drawing classes, and a kangaroo cab rank. 

While I can't argue with their continued popularity, I find the Gibbs stories and art a bit weird: a strange mix of the horribly twee (the character names for starters, and the pudgy little babies) and the very dark. The babies have a nasty nemesis, the Banksia Men (hairy creatures based on Banksia cones, probably Banksia attenuata), and the books contain a lot of predation and death. George Seddon's essay Cuddlepie and other surrogates (see the preview - page 119 onwards - in the 1998 compilation Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape) argues that the mythos serves as a metaphor for coming to terms with the dangers of the Australian bush, and that it's in advance of its time in its unsentimental portrayal of nature. Seddon also notes an eccentricity: Gibbs' "almost obsessive" focus on the babies' bare bottoms, which appear in nearly all the illustrations - though it's hard to see the drawings through the mindset of a less paranoid era.

Addendum, Dec. 2013. See also The May Gibbs battle; artist Steve Panozzo on the controversial HarperCollins publication of a re-illustrated and re-written version of the stories.

By the way, my first thought about May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was that it was an Australian retread of Cicely Mary Barker's classic Flower Fairies series. However, on checking the dates I find that the first Flower Fairies book, Flower Fairies of the Spring, didn't come out until 1923. Most likely both authors were responding to the general Zeitgeist: a craze for fairies in the early 20th century, which in turn latched on to older themes. There are any number of Victorian works featuring flower fairies - of which more later maybe.

- Ray

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