NUTCOTE - The house is a single storey rectangular dwelling built on land that gently slopes towards the water and is sited on a sandstone ridge about half way down the block. It is built of cavity brick, roughly rendered and painted with a terracotta colour pantile roof and painted chimneys. A balcony edged with an arched portico and wrought iron railings opens onto the water frontage from the studio and dining room. Louvered timber shutters grace the sides of the timber, double hung sash windows. The front door is set back in a plain pillared entrance portico. (Stacy 1986). The house is built in a classical mediterranean style and consists of 8 rooms and a verandah, porch, entry and hall. The basement contains a laundry, lobby and third bedroom.
DOUBLE GARAGE- Frontage on Wallaringa Avenue. A rectangular building with rendered brickwork walls, terracotta tiled roof and multipaned timber windows and doors. The frontage features two pairs of ledged, framed and sheeted timber bifold doors. The form, detail and finishes are markedly inferior to the house.
THE GARDENS - Fall to the west to the water's edge of Neutral Bay and are quite steep below the cottage where outcropping sandstone occurs. The steep area of the site has remnant native vegetation developed on the Hawkesbury Sandstone derived soils. Outcropping sandstone immediately below the cottage to the west was used to construct a terrace. The terrace area is concrete paved and a concrete stairway leads down the rock face to connect to the lower grass terrace.
On the higher eastern side below Wallaringa Road the garden shows evidence of its original cottage character with some remnents of the annuals, perenials and hedging present. The major remnants are primarily along the southern boundary fence and immediately adjacent to the cottage and garage.
Other landscape elements include brick flagged paths from the front of the property to the cottage entrance portico and along the north side of the cottage. A timber lattice with trellis and shrubbery planting screens the north western corner of the cottage. Remains of an early steel post and wire fence can be found along the western (harbour frontage) boundary. Timber fences line the remaining boundaries. (H.Tanner & Assoc. 1993: 13-18)
1924-1938 - General maintenance including painting (5 times) and repairs to
-Garden established and maintained
1928 - Garage built
1950-1970 - Enamel bath removed and shower hob installed in bathroom.
- Refrigerator in dining room replaced ice chest in hall
- Shower recess added to laundry.
1973-1987 - Enamel sink removed from kitchen and replaced with stainless
-New gas stove installed
-Safe added in bedroom 1
-Original fittings replaced with 'modern' lightfittings
-Security grill added to window W16
1988 -Fire in laundry destroys a door, window, shutters and cupboard
1987-1990 - Possible rewiring of house
-Some repairs to roof
-Front door removed and replaced wiht poor quality door.
-Chimney piece to fireplace in living room removed
-Garden trellis removed.
1990-1993 -Renewing of gutters, fascias and timber trims and repainting of east
facade of garage.
(H.Tanner & Associates 1993: Appendix 1)
Prior to restoration of the site physical condition was assessed as follows
- House - reasonable
-Garage - fair
-Gardens - poor (H.Tanner & Assoc 1993: 34)
Known to its Aboriginal inhabitants as Wirra-birra, the bay almost opposite to Sydney Cove was designated by Captain Arthur Phillip as a safe anchorage for foreign ships, sufficiently far away to discourage escaping convicts but close enough to keep surveillance while credentials were being established. Hence the name Neutral Bay (National Trust of Australia (NSW), 2018, 18).
By the beginning of the 20th century the maritime enterprises that had dominated the Lower North Shore had begun to give way to residential development. Neutral Bay and Cremorne became known as 'alternative society suburbs', where the emerging Arts and Crafts architectural style was creating a 'friendly', relaxed style in contrast to the uniformity of terrace housing (ibid, 2019, 18).
Nutcote was the home and studio of May Gibbs, Australia's first woman cartoonist who is well remembered for her children's stories and illustrations.
Cecilia May Gibbs was born in Cheam Fields, Surrey England on 17 January 1877. In 1881 her father Herbert and an uncle emigrated to South Australia and a month later her mother May (nee Rogers: Pug, 2018) and brother Bertie sailed to join them (Lawrence, 1999, 59). May spent the first few years of her life in Surrey, emigrating in 1881. Her father and uncle George attempted to establish a farm near Wallaroo. It failed almost immediately, and the family settled in Adelaide's Norwood. May was educated at home and recalled 'I loved drawing, so my father started me right off, because he was a clever artist'. (ibid, 2018, 14).
In 1885 the brothers invested in a Western Australian homestead, 'The Harvey'. May recalled the two years the family lived there as 'the happiest in my life'. She had a small pony, which enabled her to explore the countryside and experience the local flora and fauna, discovering many of the wild flowers and plants that inspired so many of her characters. After two years Herbert found work in Perth, where he began teaching his daughter watercolours and then oils. From her early years she experimented with theatre, music, poetry and literature, and was heavily influenced by the British children's illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-86). In Western Australia May had the opportunity to see the work of Australia's most famous female botanical artist, the internationally recognised Ellis Rowan. In 1889, Rowan had travelled to Western Australia to seek out new plant species to draw and collect, and exhibit her work in Perth. Her fearless spirit and artistic prowess must have left a significant impression on May, because the very next year Gibbs' work would hang beside Rowan's in a Perth show. Within a decade she had left for London to study art (ibid, 2018, 14-15).
She exhibited an early talent for sketching and loved the bush, which she explored on her pony. She had 3 trips to England in 1900, 1904 and 1909, but in 1905 embarked on her career as illustrator (ibid, 1999, 59). She found success publishing satirical columns under the pseudonym 'Blob'. In the first years of the 20th century she became interested in children's illustration, and began experimenting with fairy tales set in an Australian bush setting (ibid, 2018, 15).
Her gumnut babies were born in 1913. In December 1914 the 'Sydney Morning Herald' declared "That she uses all Australian flower and leaf forms in her artistic work is one of the chief charms which Miss May Gibbs manages to infuse in all she does." Her first Australian books were 'Gum Nut Babies' and 'Gum Blossom Babies' which appeared in 1916. In 1919 May quietly married James Ossoli Kelly in Perth and later moved to a flat at Runnymede in Kurraba Point, North Sydney. The following year they moved again to Derry, in Phillips Street. (Lawrence, 1999, 59).
Over the war years following 1914, May created a series of postcards full of iconic imagery reminding Australian soldiers of home. They were included in Red Cross parcels sent to soldiers on the front line. Gibbs' bush babies traversed teh world amongst woolly socks and biscuits, with a message to heighten spirits: 'We are the Gumnut Corps, We're going to the War (We'll make things hum, by gum!)'.
Gibbs' love of Australian plants and animals underlay her ability to see tiny boats in native seedpods, and to portray these in a botanically accurate way, yet so delightfully that her books have inspired in many a love of Australia's flora (ibid, 2018, 15).
The site was chosen and purchased in 1922 by May Gibbs' mother Cecie Gibbs. (NB: Lawrence, 1999 notes the mother's name as May). The house was designed in 1924 by B.J.Waterhouse, a fashionable domestic architect, and was completed in early 1925 by builder F.J.Gray. It was of classical Mediterranean style. Total investment in the site was 5000 pounds. May Gibbs and her husband James Ossoli Kelly moved in in February 1925. In 1928 a double garage with basement flatette, also designed by Waterhouse, was built towards the front of the property. (It was Waterhouse who requested the house be named 'Nutcote' and it complied with May's wish for 'compactness, convenience and charm'. May Gibbs said of Nutcote 'I used to walk about the garden weeding it and loving it with a book in my pocket and a pencil and that's where I got my best ideas.' (Lawrence, 1999, 59).
The house was specifically designed to accommodate Gibbs' studio and reflected her lifestyle, needs and priorities. The living room was the main room of the house and reflects the trend from the 1890s to centre the house on a 'living hall'. It was a gathering place for May and her circle, some of whom stayed for extended periods in the flatette, second bedroom and in later years, a primitive suite of self contained rooms in the basement of the main house. (May was besotted with her Scottie dogs (Scots terriers) and, on excursions, there were bundled into the back of the car and nursed by the housekeeper. Lawrence, 1999, 59).
The comic strip 'Bib and Bub' was produced at Nutcote until 1967, the site's garden became an increasing source of inspiration for this and other works, particularly from the 1950s. (May Gibbs lived and worked at Nutcote until her death in 1969. (Lawrence, 1999, 59).
On her death May Gibbs left the rights and royalties to her work to the Crippled Children's Society and the Spastic Centre. Nutcote was left to the UNICEF Foundation who auctioned its contents in 1970 and a year later sold the property for $85 000 to Socrad Pty Ltd.
Nutcote was classified by the National Trust in 1986 and placed on the North Sydney Council Heritage List in 1987. Despite this, a development application was made to modernise Nutcote and built townhouses in the grounds by prospective buyers Invergowrie Pty Ltd. This sparked a long process of attempts to save Nutcote by the May Gibbs Foundation and interested parties. An unsuccessful appeal was made to Bob Carr, then Minister for Planning and Environment, to purchase the property, and a Commission of Inquiry was established to examine Socrad's objections to the imposition of a permanent conservation order on the site and to hear an appeal by Invergowrie against the Heritage Council's objection of its redevelopment proposal.
The outcome of the inquiry was a compromise recommendation that a permanent conservation order be placed on the cottage but limited townhouse development be allowed on the grounds. The May Gibbs foundation was not happy with the outcome.
An announcement by Invergowrie, who had gone ahead with the purchase of the site, that they would proceed with the development prompted further action. The campaign to save Nutcote was launched in November 1987. On 6 January 1988 a permanent conservation order was placed on the house, harbour side garden and ten metres of the front garden. This allowed for the townhouse development to proceed. On 25 January 1988 fire caused superficial damage to the house. Internal alterations were approved by the Heritage Council in June.
In September 1988 North Sydney Council voted unanimously to resume Nutcote and turn it over to the May Gibbs Foundation to use as a museum commemorating the woman and her work. This decision and the rejection of the application to alter the house were appealed in the Land and Environment Court by Invergowrie. The court assessor upheld the company's appeal. The May Gibbs foundation was unable to gain State or Federal government financial support to protect the property.
Nutcote was placed on the market in July 1989. Foundation members outnumbered bidders and Nutcote was passed in at $2.6 million. The property remained deserted until North Sydney Council made the decision to purchase Nutcote outright in November 1991 and lease it to the Nutcote Trust to operate on a profit sharing basis. During this period the front door and fireplace surround were stolen and maintenance was minimal.
North Sydney Council originally intended to contribute $600 000 to the purchase and raise the rest by donations from the state and/or federal governments and the community. The inability to raise these funds and a depressed economic climate prompted the council decision to pay the purchase price of $2.86 million.
On 17 January 1992 the Nutcote Centre for Literacy, Arts and Environment was launched on what would have been May Gibbs' 115th birthday. The house would undergo restoration in the following year (H.Tanner & Assoc. 1993: 3-13).
On May 1st 1994 following completion of the restoration project, Nutcote was officially opened as a museum of Gibb's work by artist and illustrator, Elizabeth Durack. It is open from 11am to 3pm Wednesdays to Sundays (Lawrence, 1999, 59).
In 2002/3 the Federal Government provided a Heritage CHPP grant of $27,274 for restoration work to Nutcote and its setting.