May Gibbs and Nutcote

Two gumnut babies peeping through

On our recent stay in Sydney we were living close to Nutcote, the house that May Gibbs, the famous author of books and comic strips lived in.  When I was a child I had a copy of her book Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. I may have received it because I too grew up in Western Australia where May Gibbs spent much of her early life. Her parents came out from the UK when she was four years old but once she reached adulthood she returned to England to study art. However Australia was lucky that she returned and created a wonderful series of works based on Australian flora and fauna.

The lemon tree that was planted by May Gibbs is still there. This is the unpretentious entrance but the house looks more interesting when viewed from the other side that faces Neutral Bay.

The house was designed by a well known architect in the area at the time, Bertrand James Waterhouse 1876-1965. Until I visited the house I had not heard of B.J. Waterhouse so here is some information to share with anyone interested in Australian architects. He was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England and came to Australia in 1885. He studied architecture at Sydney Technical College. He worked in the harbours and rivers branch of the Department of Public Works and became a relieving architectural draftsman. He formed a partnership in 1908 with J.W.H. Lake. Together they built up a practice in the Cremorne and Neutral Bay area of Sydney. His domestic architecture reflected the Arts and Crafts Movement of the time of which there are many fine examples in the area.  He eventually began to adapt those principles toward a more Mediterranean style, hence Nutcote with its textured stucco walls, and symmetrical shuttered windows. He also designed a variety of public buildings and university buildings. He received an OBE in 1939 and various medals. His portrait was painted in 1958 by William Dargie and is in the Art Gallery of NSW.

Waterhouse designed it to her specific needs, quite modest but it still has an air of grace and elegance. Designed to reflect the Spanish Mission style, inside it has lots of cupboards and shelves built-in, quite modern for the times. The kitchen is miniscule, she did not cook very much except for an apple pie that she was quite proud of making. She left the cooking to her husband who was a retired mining agent.When she was not drawing she spent her time in the large garden.

May’s husband died in 1939 and she remained at Nutcote with her dogs, Scottish Terriers. When she died in 1969 childless she left her estate to UNICEF, the Spastic Centre of NSW and the NSW Society for Crippled Children (now the Northcott Society). Many years later the house was bought and turned into the Nutcote Trust.This photo taken from a small terrace next to the original garage where she used to house her Dodge car. By all reports she loved the big Dodge and used it to go on camping trips in the country. The verdigris eucalyptus leaves on railing are a nice touch. You can even see the Sydney Harbour Bridge from here.

‘Pixie O’Harris’ (Mrs B. Pratt) an artist and friend described her as ‘fairly tall, medium weight, with dark hair, a lean artistic face and keen eyes. Her voice was firm and refined’. On my way back to Brisbane by road I stopped off in a second hand bookshop and found a copy of the original small Rosemary Hemphill book on herbs and to my delight discovered it was illustrated by Pixie O’Harris. Sometimes things happen like that.

The view from the other side of the house. Her studio was to the right of the top floor, the living room in the middle and the dining room is the window upstairs to the left. The dining room has her collection of Spode and willow-pattern china. We were not allowed photos of the inside but you may see more if you visit the website of Nutcote.

Downstairs is used for watching a video made of May Gibbs speaking about her life. Her output was prolific, in 1924 the first ‘Bib and Bub’ cartoon strip was published in the Sydney Sunday News: the comic strip survived sundry newspaper mergers to run until September 1967. In 1925-31 the rival Sunday Sun published her second comic strip ‘Tiggy Touchwood’, under the pseudonym, ‘Stan Cottman’. She also wrote a weekly column, ‘Gumnut Gossip’.

It is a long parcel of land and here you are looking back toward the road. Beneath the garage that is converted into a bookshop, there is a cafe.

I delved a little and found an interesting connection with Brisbane – the May Gibbs Literature Trust set up for research purposes and Creative Fellowships. Studios are available in Canberra, Adelaide and in Brisbane. The Brisbane studio is a one-bedroom apartment in a renovated private art deco hotel that was built in 1931. It is located in the CBD. The apartment is air-conditioned and fully furnished with TV, microwave, linen and washing machine. There is a roof-top garden with BBQ, spa and sauna, and restaurant on the premises. For Brisbane readers it is in the Rothbury on Ann Street building. Here is the link to the Trust.

We could not leave without buying a copy of The complete adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie for me to relive my childhood and a couple of copies for our grandchildren.

Nutcote – 5 Wallaringa Avenue, Neutral Bay, NSW 2089.
Phone: Australia+61 (0)2 9953 4453 Fax: Australia+61 (0)2 9953 0302



  1. #1 by bagnidilucca on August 27, 2011 - 2:40 am

    How lovely! My son loved her books when he was little. I would love to visit.

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