The Last Kirby

Tom Holt said it best in his foreword to Josh Kirby's art book A Cosmic Cornucopia. Soldiers dream of the Military Cross, scientists want the Nobel, journalists yearn for a Pulitzer ... and fantasy authors crave a Josh Kirby cover.

There'll be no more, alas. It was a nasty shock to return from a week away from e-mail, to find that Josh had died at 72 and The Independent urgently wanted me to write his obituary. More bad times.

Lots of people think that Josh began his career as a commercial artist with the first Discworld jacket in 1984, which is at least thirty years wrong. He was painting SF paperback covers as early as 1954, and Brian Aldiss was delighted that his own first cover was a Kirby, illustrating his story in a 1957 Authentic SF magazine.

Being a shy, rather private man, Josh enjoyed cultivating an air of mystery and eccentricity, and hinted he'd been around even longer. "Has that nice Mr Wells written anything lately?" he would ask. And why no recent commissions to illustrate new SF by Jules Verne?

He didn't mind talking about technique (mostly he worked in oils) or naming artists like Bosch and Bruegel who'd inspired him, but stayed charmingly elusive about what made his own artistry tick. Asked about his unusual painting "Balancing Nudes", two ladies posing apparently in zero-g, Josh said hazily that Art Nouveau had something to do with it. Then came the big revelation: "I don't remember! I think I just wanted a small painting."

More and more, he couldn't bear to part with his originals, and bitterly regretted the few he'd sold to such luminaries as Ray Bradbury and the Duke of Bedford. A US fan once commissioned him to paint "The Four Deadly Riders", blending the Four Horsemen with the Seven Deadly Sins: "Me being innumerate, this was no problem." Having reluctantly sold the resulting apocalyptic painting of Chaos, Hate, Lust and Madness, our artist spent a long time (uncommissioned, unpaid) producing a much bigger version for his own collection. When quizzed about what hobbies he had when not painting, Josh generally said: "More painting."

Often, his letters contained a comic frenzy of mock anguish. One he sent me in 2000 began: "Calamity piled on Calamity! As if [publishing project tactfully omitted] wasn't disaster enough, the gods have twisted the screw that bit more ... The last twist of the screw I guess is always the worst ... This is just a cry from the black hole of despair." He'd allowed a painting to be used free of charge on a small-press book, and horror of horrors, they'd ... printed it mirror-reversed.

Reversing paintings like this was one of the regular crimes inflicted on Josh by art editors. He had an instinctive sense of composition, of organizing a crowded canvas so the Western eye (which tends to read paintings from left to right) is gently led to the "narrative climax" of the action. Flipping the image ruins this effect.

Like the chap in Molière's play who discovered he'd been talking prose all his life, Josh was amazed and delighted to find these subtly curved compositions echoed an ancient pattern called the Danube spiral, a logarithmic spiral curve that's linked to the legendary Golden Section of aesthetics. One of his fans dubbed this the Kirby Kurl Konstant. When publishers mucked it up by mirroring, cropping the image, or snipping out details to use against a white background, Josh was incandescent.

Also, no matter how brilliantly he obeyed orders, he was full of joking resentment when told what to paint. I warned him in mid-2001 that my Discworld quizbook was coming, and he replied at once:

"Ah! such timing! Not only have I heard of your new quizbook, but later today I'll be sending off the finished cover! The Wyrdest Link is one of the occasions when I'm told exactly what to do, so I feel a bit like a jobbing gardener being directed from the flower-hung balcony – just a head of the Librarian, looking like Anne Robinson plus mortarboard ... will she mind?! – no creative input possible. Well, I added her glasses, omitted from the doodle I was sent ... stroke of genius? Hm...."

That was his last letter to me, describing his last commissioned Discworld painting. It's a strange feeling. I have a Josh Kirby cover, which is wonderful, but we've lost Josh Kirby.

David Langford would like the Death of SF/Fantasy People to take a holiday.