The Book of Joshua

Another month, another Langford writing project. This time it looks like fun: I'm doing the text commentary for a new collection of Josh Kirby's paintings.

Everyone who hasn't spent the last fifteen years clustered around a deep-sea volcanic vent knows Josh as the famous illustrator of those Discworld books by someone or other. Lots of us remember publishers' efforts to boost the sales of other humorous fantasy writers with Kirby covers: Tom Holt, Esther Friesner, and masters of unfunniness like Craig Shaw Gardner.

Josh himself says he tried to model his first Gardner cover on Arthur Rackham's fairyland paintings, to avoid confusion with Discworld. 'No one noticed the difference!! And Gollancz were still annoyed ...'

When you look through the Kirby portfolio, the variety of other stuff he's produced is startling. He's been doing it for ages, too, with covers for the first Pan paperback of Ian Fleming's Moonraker back in 1956, and heaps of artwork for Authentic SF magazine around 1957. I was boggled to find that several nifty Oriental covers for Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee thrillers were secretly by Josh ...

'But they're credited to Ron Kirby,' I complained. Josh confessed that he was born Ronald; some people call him Ron though his friends use Josh. So where did the nickname come from? 'When I was at Art School, some wag thought I painted like Sir Joshua Reynolds!' Always nice to be compared to a painter who died in 1792.

At least Josh did get one of his names on those books. Many publishers had a firm policy of not crediting cover artists; some still don't. I'm constantly surprised by uncredited paintings in different styles which prove to be secretly by Josh. One favourite is the old Four Square edition of Robert Sheckley's Untouched by Human Hands, surreally showing an ordinary wooden house-staircase standing in a desert waste, with a chap in a suit fleeing up it into nothingness as arrows hurtle towards him. This is actually pretty true to Sheckley's eccentric story.

Another is the classic painting of the eternal city Diaspar in The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. No credit on this 1970 Corgi edition, but you can tell it's Josh from the organically shaped buildings and strange seams or lines of force crossing the dome over the city. Space helmets in his sf covers also have these characteristic veins and lumps, as though hand-blown by the Alchemists' Guild. Josh must have been in his element when painting the cover for David Duncan's Occam's Razor, which imagines travel between different realities via complexly intersecting soap-films. There they are doing topological things on the abstract-looking jacket, and you can just make out a tiny white 'Kirby' ...

One question I had for Josh was about the 16th-century Italian painter Arcimboldo, who painted surreal faces built up from fruit, vegetables, etc. Just so, Josh has constructed Alfred Hitchcock's face from horror images, Terry Wossname from Discworld images, and – for Colin Wilson's philosophical porn novel The God of the Labyrinth – a satyr-head from writhing naked women. How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Discworld. Josh agreed that Arcimboldo was his inspiration but added that, before ever studying painting, he'd seen this feelthy French postcard: 'Napoleon's head made of nudes – it made a great impression on my young mind.'

Josh had considerable fun with tongue-in-cheek covers for the Hitchcock horror anthologies. My favourite features an incredibly gross, bloated Hitch who's telling his own fortune and is just nervously laying down his ninth Ace of Spades. Behind him, Death – no robe, just bare bones – cheerfully looks at the reader with one finger touched to his lack of lips, as though to say: 'Ssh! Don't spoil the surprise!'

Discworld paintings are still Josh's favourite work, although here he's a victim of his own success. Authors get more royalties as their books sell and are reprinted. Artists generally get a one-off payment for a cover, and hope for repeat sales when the book's reprinted with a new jacket. Unfortunately, those Kirby covers are so much part of the Discworld image that the same ones are reprinted again and again ...

Josh admits, philosophically, that the only way to get rich doing book covers is to work quickly. 'I work very, very slowly.' But it adds up to an awful lot of paintings in 45 years.

David Langford clean forgot to mention that the forthcoming artbook's title is Josh Kirby's A Cosmic Cornucopia.