Graham Oakley (1929-2022) was an author and illustrator best known for his work on the much-loved Church Mice series of children’s books.
Art-school trained, his prolific output also included the Foxbury Force series (1994-98) but it is his wonderfully detailed watercolours starring Sampson the cat and Arthur the mouse that he is most famous for, produced from 1972 for a period of nearly 30 years. It became so successful that by 1977 he was able to leave a production designer job at the BBC to be a writer.
When Oakley died last year in Dorchester, an obituary in The Guardian described The Church Mice - 12 books in total - as a “beautifully illustrated, written and designed, warm-hearted and witty series” which “demonstrates perfectly that a successful picture book needs to be subtle and layered, on the assumption that it may be read and reread many times over and that its audience will be intergenerational”.
It added that Oakley planned to have each new title in a different building in the fictional town of Wortlethorpe, but “such was the success of The Church Mouse [the first book in 1972] that the publisher persuaded him to keep Arthur, Sampson and their friends in the church”.
Ten hours of bidding
On September 27 the Graham Oakley Studio auction that took place at Charterhouse (25% buyer’s premium) underlined his enduring popularity.
Richard Bromell from the Sherborne, Dorset, saleroom said: “It took 10 hours to auction, finishing just after 8pm, and two collectors in the saleroom spent 10 hours trying to bid - unusual to see anyone in the rooms these days.”
Offered unreserved, some signed, all of the 767 lots - sold without copyright - got away for a hammer total of £117,120 (or £152,256 with premium). The proceeds of the sale were bequeathed in Oakley’s will to Save the Children.
The Church Mice works - which made up about 450 of the lots - understandably proved the most popular, including the top result: £2800 for Sampson the cat and the church mice by the fire. The 4½ x 8in (11x 20cm) unframed watercolour set a record for Oakley.
Artworks used for front covers were very much in demand, such as The Church Mice In Action, showing Sampson the cat with the church mice and a pride of cats. The 8½ x 10in (21 x 26cm) unframed watercolour took £2200.
Eleven of the 767 lots sold for four figures - mostly Church Mice works - but plenty of others were available at price points starting from £25-50. Many went for three-figure sums, such as The Foxbury Force at a briefing, 6½ x 7½in (17 x 19cm) unframed, which realised £220. The police force in the town of Foxbury was staffed by - you guessed it - foxes. This series featured three books.
Charterhouse valuer John Snape said: “The buyers were predominantly private collectors who loved the books, mainly online bidders with a few in the room. One buyer bought about 200 lots and has informed us that he intends to catalogue and safely archive his collection, with a view to lending to children’s museums and other venues for exhibitions.”