Oxford’s favourite children’s illustrator Korky Paul has just finished a Zoom call to India when we speak, having been running a children’s workshop at a book festival in New Delhi.
The Winnie The Witch maestro got up at 5.30am because of the time differences but is still in a buoyant and cheerful mood.
That should come as little surprise considering he is currently promoting his brand new one-off book ‘Oxford Z-A: 1000 Years of History in 26 Letters’, while also preparing for his exclusive exhibition ‘Korky Paul: Winnie & Wilbur’s Magical Moments’ at The North Wall in December.
On top of all that, Korky is currently finishing off the latest Winnie and Wilbur adventure based on how the pair met called Winnie’s Best Friend.
Korky is best known for illustrating the Winnie the Witch series picture books, – which began when he first moved to Oxford. Written by Valerie Thomas they have sold around 9 million copies and been translated into 35 languages at the last count.
“So many children wrote in asking about how Winnie and Wilbur first got together that I thought I should address that,” Korky smiles.
“Because when you get a pet it’s a big deal. I remember when we were first house hunting in Summertown and the children didn’t care if the houses we viewed were falling down or not as long as they had a cat flap for the cat I’d promised them,” he laughs. “So the new book is about how Winnie hooked up with Wilbur.”
Where to start then? “I know,” the 68 year-old says gleefully. “There’s a lot going on, but the exhibition has been planned for a year now so it’s very exciting.
Perhaps with the upcoming exhibition then? Originally planned as a North Wall extravaganza with accompanying theatre, workshops and dressing up, social distancing has meant that the exhibition has been stripped back, but will be no less impressive for it.
“It has been interesting seeing how this will happen, which is why it’s ticketed, but people can buy the prints as well which is nice.”
A rare treat indeed, because Korky Paul doesn’t sell his work ordinarily. “I find it really hard to part with,” he admits. “So I have each drawing archived with all the research, sketches and notes for each one.
“The signed GK digital prints in The North Wall are a great alternative,” he says, “so it’s hard to tell the difference.”
Understandably protective of his work, the North Wall show in December therefore offers us an amazing opportunity to admire Korky’s legacy of work and understand the passion and expertise that goes into each and every illustration.
So do the drawings get easier as time goes on? “Some are more difficult or complex than others and I struggle to find the right image, but they come out surprisingly well in the end, and these tend to be the ones I’ve chosen for the exhibition – just a few from each book going back almost 30 years.”
“So yes the exhibition at The North Wall is a big deal, and it’s great because it’s just round the corner from where I live.”
Korky’s other new project is ‘Oxford Z-A: 1000 Years of History in 26 Letters’ with Radio 4 gag writer and comedian Richard O Smith, another familiar Oxford face, which is also being launched at The North Wall on December 8.
Ticket holders can enjoy Richard O. Smith performing a hilarious talk packed with funny stories and quirky facts from Oxford’s past, while Korky Paul will be drawing live on stage
“I’ve worked with Richard before and he has so many wonderful anecdotes about Oxford, such as the Parsons Pleasure when Oxford dons went skinny dipping in the River Cherwell and a punt of ladies floated past. As the dons clambered out and covered themselves, one put a towel over his head and said “everyone knows me by my face,” Korky chortles.
“Another is about Oscar Wilde when the Oxford rugby team tried to beat him up without knowing he was 6ft 6 and they all ran off.”
“So Richard gave me all the stories and I did the drawings, about 300 in all. So what started as a 48 page book is now 104. But it’s such a wonderful and quirky book. So I’m very proud of it. The perfect stocking filler,” he adds.
A nice distraction then considering Korky usually spends a lot of his time in schools teaching workshops for children, which he loves, but obviously can’t do at the moment.
“Children have such wonderful imaginations. They are so inspirational and create such imaginative characters. I miss them,” he says rather sadly.
Having been born in Zimbabwe and growing up in South Africa, before travelling to Greece and America to work in advertising, Korky ended up in London and then Oxford when his illustrating took over. So does Korky think his international past has a bearing on the success of his work?
“Oh absolutely. It’s makes you realise there are lots of different ways of looking at things, different kinds of solutions and ideas,” he says nodding.
It was Oxford University Press who first noticed Korky’s talent and offered him a story about a witch in a house with a black cat who kept tripping up.
“It was a great little story and I knew it would make a great picture book and it went from there,” Korky says with extraordinary modesty.
And what an adventure it’s been with 20 Winnie and Wilbur picture books, 20 Winnie and Wilbur black and white picture books, plus another 30+ assorted illustrated books since.
“It’s taken me all around the world, to places I’d never have visited, from Thailand to the Middle East, and it’s still fun and challenging. Every new book is always exciting and different.
So how does he feel when he looks back at such an illustrious career. He must be proud? “I can scarcely believe it,” he smiles, before heading back to the drawing board to create some more Winnie and Wilbur magic.
To book tickets to the book launch of Oxford Z-A: 1000 Years of History in 26 Letters’, published by Signal Books, at The North Wall on December 8 go to https://www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/oxford-z-a-1000-years-of-history-in-26-letters/
To book tickets to Korky Paul: Winnie and Wilbur’s Magical Moments at The North Wall from December 4-23 go to https://www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/korky-paul-winnie-and-wilburs-magical-moments/
Or ring the box office on 01865 319450.