Australian flora inspiration for famous children’s author and illustrator

Best known for bringing Australian flora to life with her children’s stories in the adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, featuring her famous and oh so cute gumnut babies escaping from the big bad Banksia men.

Australian children’s author and illustrator May Gibbs’ Neutral Bay abode still sits proudly, perched high upon the harbourside shore of Neutral Bay NSW, a 15minute ferry ride from Sydney’s well renowned Circular Quay.

You catch a glimpse of the yellow house from the ferry.

UK born in 1877, May immigrated to Australia with her parents at age 4, initially to South Australia, then eventually on to settle in South Perth in Western Australia, which is where her love for the bush began.

Being a career woman in the early 1900’s

At age 23, May returned to England to pursue her art studies and officially begin her writing career and publish her first book in 1912.  A year later she returned to Australia, settling in Sydney providing illustrations for the NSW Department of Public Instruction, contributing to Lone hand and designing covers for the Sydney Mail.

3 years later, her famous Gumnut Babies was born with her first written and illustrated book.  Her works also included designed postcards sent to soldiers in World War One, book-marks, calendars and additional other novelties with the gumnut and blossom baby illustrations.  Her books Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in 1918, alone sold 17,000 copies during its first release.

Behind the building of Nutcote House

In 1919, May married Irishman mining agent James Ossoli Kelly who commissioned Sydney architect BJ Waterhouse in 1924 to design their now heritage listed abode.  The only caveat to the design as per May’s instructions were to ensure their house would have ‘compactness, convenience and charm’ and could accommodate her studio, which one will certainly see when you have the opportunity to walk through their home, now a museum.

The land (long and narrow) was purchased for 1,365 pounds with a 500-pound deposit.  Once construction was completed, the total investment value (land and house) was 5,000 pounds. May (48 years old) and James moved into their new and forever home in 1925, where they lived until the death of James’ in 1939 and May’s in 1969.

Nutcote is a 3-bedroom cottage delight. Cleverly designed and compact without feeling like you’re living in a small home.  The rectangular lounge separated the main bedroom and 2nd bedroom/studio on one side and the 3rd guest room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom on the other. 

The main attraction no doubt has to be the arched sunroom/balcony perched high upon a steep slope with a framed birds eye view of the water and the bridge in the distance, which it’s been told, is where May and James sat on their balcony many a days, watching the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one metal piece at a time.

The interior has a distinct Early English décor styled with a generous layout of dark stained timber joinery. May’s studio, surrounded by windows to the left and water facing, was framed with Australian trees and shrubs. Further reinforcing May’s love of the Australian bush and inspiration that literally came to life through her art.

Sitting on one fo the many garden benches looking out at the water.

The landscaping surrounding her quant home is a gardener’s dream.  Every which way you walk is a pathway filled with luscious greenery and hedges housing statues alongside cleverly crafted phrases to make you smile as you meander down the pavers, slowly making your way from the street entrance/building, now a gift shop, to the café, more open gardens and eventually to the originally house, now a museum and finally the last steep rockery staircase leading down to the water’s edge.

A selection of quirky phrases scattered amongst the flowers.

Ownership of Nutcote upon May’s death

  • 1969 – After her death, May left her home to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (however due to their charter, they were unable to hold the property.
  • 1970 – The house and contents were sold at public auction, where owners later expressed intent to demolish and develop the site
  • 1987 – the May Gibbs Foundation was formed and a community battle that turned nationwide began in order to save Nutcote and won
  • Nutcote became protected by a Permanent Conservation Order and placed on the Register of the National Estate
  • 1990 – Nutcote was purchased for $2.86m by the North Sydney Municipal Council
  • The May Gibbs Foundation became The Nutcote Trust and they rented Nutcote from North Sydney Council restoring  the house as it would have looked in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
  • 1994 – Nutcote was opened to the public

“Ladies in Black”  celebrates New Year’s Eve in the Nutcote house

Photos taken from:

Ladies in Black, based on the novel, follows the lives s of 4 dynamic woman at various stages in their lives, in post war 50’s moving into the swinging 60’s, selling fashion in Sydney’s grand department store Goode’s – a fictionalised version of David Jones.

A time in history where men brought home the money and woman were expected to be in their Sunday best every day and ensure dinner was on the table by the time they came home, no doubt via a round at the pub first.

It was also a period that saw many migrants arriving in Australia and the changes in society, finding a way to bring together the mistrust or misunderstanding between the old Australian and the immigrants.  And the fashion department of a grand store is the one place that brought the ladies of high society out – no better way to expression their femininity – shopping

Photos taken from:

Parts of the movie were shot as some of Sydney’s most iconic and memorable locations;  the un-renovated seventh floor of the real David Jones, the tram scenes were shot at the Sydney Tramway Museum in Loftus NSW, the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains was the setting for a party.

Photos taken from:

The famous historical home of May Gibbs, Nutcote, was the scene for the New Year’s Eve party held in May Gibbs’ stunning framed balcony overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Balcony – looking out at the harbour
Balcony – looking in – connecting opposite ends of the house.

May Gibbs was 40 when she married and died without any children of her own but was often known to say “all the children in the world are my children”

Portrait of May Biggs.


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