It has taken me nearly thirty years to visit Nutcote, the artist May Gibbs’ harbourside home in Sydney. Why I left it so long I have no idea, but it was certainly worth the wait.
After almost being lost to developers the property opened to the public in 1994.
My partner Rob and I caught the ferry over from Circular Quay on a sunny autumn day.
Only very special people have Sydney ferries named after them.
IN HER OWN WORDS
Who better to talk about Nutcote than May Gibbs herself? I was delighted to come across this interview she gave in 1925, the year the house was built;
‘….I have a little new home, designed by B.J. Waterhouse, with bright blue front door and shutters, and windows full of Sydney Harbour, and the water, splashing on the rocks at the bottom of my garden, makes music for me while I work.’
‘I have an Irish husband, a pianola, and a gramophone, two little black Scotch dogs, a mother and father living in Perth, and a pile of unanswered letters on my desk, a love for blue and white china, Charlie Chaplin, music, sweet peas, animals, water, and cottage furniture. Of course the really important things, like Heysen’s, Vermeer’s and babies, are too big to be mentioned in this short chat.‘
Among the things she said she hated were; cages, oysters, opera, ‘going out’, spelling and darning. 😍
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
May Gibbs was born in Kent and was four years old when her parents emigrated to Australia. She returned to England on several occasions, and studied art in London, a city she loved. However, in the same interview she said,
‘If you scratch me you will smell eucalypt, Only when I came back to her did I realise what a fantastic, richly original, delightfully reckless place Australia is.’ (The Mail, December 12 1925)
Below is the front garden at Nutcote, and May playing with one of her ‘Scotch dogs’. It was taken in summer, with climbing roses flowering against the lattice.
Look, there is still a lattice divider. In autumn the salvia is in full bloom….an inspired spot for a rustic wooden seat.
The two bedroom house was designed to have views from all the widows, and as few passage ways as possible. A volunteer guide told me that May’s Irish husband and manager James Kelly (Bertram James Ossali Kelly) did most of the cooking in this tiny kitchen. I love the serving hatch through to the dining room. Sadly, Kelly died in 1939.
The couple did not have children and May lived on at Neutral Bay alone for another thirty years. Mind you, she wasn’t really alone. She had the company of all those little characters of her imagination. Fortunately for us she drew and painted and wrote about them day after day.
Not everything in the house is original, but the easel in the studio is, and I guess that’s the essence of May Gibbs.
There was a party on this little balcony on August 19 1930 to watch the joining of the arches of Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can just spot the bridge behind the pillar on my right.
THE ‘HARBOUR GARDEN’ AT NUTCOTE
The garden wanders right down to Sydney Harbour. Naturally a Banksia serrata grows there.
The hairy, spent flowers inspired the artist’s famous (and feared) character; Big Bad Banksia Man.
Oh yes, and there is a eucalypt…. a tribute to the fragrance May mentioned and for its gum nuts, that led to her most popular book series;
The garden was a constant source of joy and inspiration for May. She also loved the Australian bush, and would drive her Dodge car up to Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains. I live and garden at Blackheath so I can understand why she loved this place. I’m afraid I have no talent for art, but I do have fun with our weird and wonderful native plants.
Just before May moved into Nutcote she began publishing a cartoon strip in the Sun Newspaper, called Bib and Bub. Remarkably, she would produce the strip until 1967, just two years before she died, aged 92.
May Gibbs’ long life was devoted to sharing an appreciation of nature, especially with children. Her entire estate was left to support children’s charities.
Oh yes, the little shop at the entrance is a lot of fun;
There is so much more I could write about May Gibbs, especially her support of our troops during WWI. However, this piece is mainly about Nutcote.
NOTE – Rob and I had to wear our Covid masks during the ferry trip to Neutral Bay. It reminded me that May lived through the flu epidemic, and responded with her inimical humour.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON VISITING NUTCOTE, CLICK HERE.