Josh Kirby: Biographical Introduction

Josh Kirby was born a long time ago and refers to himself as 'unbearably ancient' ... Terry Pratchett, who knows a thing or two, has darkly hinted at an age of several centuries [footnote]. At birth he was christened Ronald William Kirby; the 'Josh' was to come later. He remembers that even as a small boy he had a particular career in mind: 'At seven years old I drew a "trade sign" – ARTIST – for my future life.'

In due course he studied art techniques for six years at the Liverpool City School of Art (1943-9), where his drawing course brought him the Intermediate certificate in Arts and Crafts and was followed by a painting course that led to his National Diploma in Design. It was here at the school that he picked up the nickname which became his working name: 'When I was at Art School, some wag thought I painted like Sir Joshua Reynolds!'

Today Kirby doesn't feel that his mature style owes anything in particular to the tuition he received in Liverpool. When asked about influences, he most often names three past artists. The oldest is Hieronymus Bosch (?1450-1516), famous for those teeming, surreally fantastic landscapes of heaven and hell – including the Garden of Earthly Delights whose name was echoed in the Kirby collection In the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Next comes Pieter Bruegel the Elder (?1525-1569) with his hauntingly detailed groups of warts-and-all Flemish peasants, not to mention the definitive portrayal of the colossal Tower of Babel which Kirby later spoofed in his movie poster for Monty Python's Life of Brian. Least familiar to ordinary readers, there's the muralist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), who made bold use of colour and monumental compositions on a large scale. Of all three our artist says, 'I try to become more like these whilst contributing my personal viewpoint.'

What does he most value about his artistic heroes? 'The inventiveness of their imagery and the beauty of their techniques, especially that of Bruegel, whose close observation of nature adds an extra dimension of humanity to the teeming fantastic imagery of the paintings.'

After an early commission by Liverpool City Council to paint their Mayor – quite an honour for an artist at the beginning of his career – Kirby decided against the staid life of portrait-painting which had seemed a possibility while in art school. Instead he headed south for London to work for Pulford Publicity, a studio that produced film posters. This continued for years, varied by an interlude of poster work for a movie company in Paris. All along, though, he wanted a freelance career.

According to his own records his first published cover painting was produced in 1954 for Cee-Tee Man, a now largely forgotten 1955 science fiction novel by Dan Morgan. He touched the edge of the blockbuster James Bond phenomenon with a cover for the first Pan paperback edition of Ian Fleming's Moonraker, in 1956. But, as he happily admits, the realization that he truly wanted to make illustration his life's work came with a series of SF covers and interiors for Authentic SF magazine in 1956-7. This pointed the way to what Kirby most enjoyed doing.

A little-known fact about his work for Authentic is that much of it was signed 'Adash' or 'A-' ... an intentional nod to the Non-Aristotelian or Null-A (written as capital A with a dash over it) multi-valued logic recommended in Count Alfred Korzybski's 1930s philosophy of 'General Semantics'. This had been quite influential in the SF world after being popularized, not altogether comprehensibly, by A.E. van Vogt in his 1948 cult novel The World of Null-A.

Since then, Kirby's work has appeared on the books of numerous SF, fantasy and horror authors – indeed, very many more than fans who identify him with Terry Pratchett's Discworld may realize. His personal list of published book covers from 1954 to 1999 runs to over 400 items, and is far from complete. For one thing, it deliberately excludes paintings done to order and requiring him to suppress his own distinctive style for, as he puts it, 'categories like War, Cowboy, Adventure, Romance ... they don't hold any delights for me. And were done under sufferance so I could survive and paint on a daily basis in a society that didn't care whether "artists" survived or not.'

Kirby's preferred medium is oil paint applied in thin layers, because this dries slowly, yet not too slowly, and can be easily retouched or overpainted – repeatedly, if need be. Over the years he has experimented with but eventually rejected various other art media, including watercolour, acrylic paint (which dries far too fast for his taste), gouache and even coloured pencils. After, in his own words, 'many false starts' he produces a pencil rough of the chosen image, to be approved by the publisher's art editor ... or, in the special case of Discworld, discussed over the phone with Terry Pratchett. Although it seems like simple common sense, this artist/author contact and feedback is unusual in the publishing world, where illustrators normally deal only with art editors. (Is it mere coincidence that authors are so frequently unhappy with their covers? Perish the thought.)

In earlier years Kirby often worked at very small scale, sometimes producing paintings hardly bigger than a paperback cover. As time went by his canvases tended to become larger, and he would expand his small pencil roughs to final size by the 'squaring-up' method that goes back to antiquity: dividing the sketch into small squares and using careful hand-eye coordination to copy the lines from each square to a corresponding grid of larger squares on the actual canvas (or, more often, size-coated watercolour board). Nowadays, a rare concession to technology, he makes use of a projector to ease the enlargement process. A Kirby oil painting takes its final shape at approximately four times the width and height of a wraparound paperback cover – front, spine and back – or about 18 3/4 in by 27 in (48 x 69 cm). For a front cover only, his usual size is 18 3/8 in by 11 1/2 in (47 x 29 cm).

A slow worker, he reckons that it currently takes him four weeks to complete a single illustration, or eight counting the preliminary time taken to read a novel, select and visualize suitable images, and work out how they can be best presented. To the frustration of various authors who seriously covet them, he now prefers to keep all his original paintings ... although in past times a few have been acquired by SF figures like Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman – not to mention the Duke of Bedford.

With Discworld he found the perfect complement for the more fantastically humorous side of his talent. Cover paintings for Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic in 1983 and The Light Fantastic in 1986 quickly established Kirby as the illustrator for Discworld – inseparable, like Tenniel for Alice or E.H. Shepard for Winnie-the-Pooh. The Discworld connection has continued ever since, and earned him long-deserved international recognition as an artist.

It should be noted, though, that the cognoscenti appreciated Kirby long before fame dug him in the ribs. He has exhibited his paintings in London's Portal Gallery and ICA, in Berlin, and in many provincial British galleries. Visitors to the huge art show at the 1979 World SF Convention in Brighton voted him Best SF Artist (professional class) when Discworld was still years away.

Past collections of his work are: The Voyage of the Ayeguy (1981), a portfolio of six linked science-fantasy pictures rather than a book; The Josh Kirby Poster Book (1989), containing 13 posters inspired by Discworld; In the Garden of Unearthly Delights (1991), a large selection of 159 paintings; and The Josh Kirby Discworld Portfolio (1993), actually a book of 28 paintings rather than a portfolio. Large-format editions of Eric (1990), whose text is by Terry Pratchett, contain enough elaborate Kirby illustrations (15 plus cover) to qualify as another mini-collection – the artist receives equal front-cover credit.

A private Kirby ambition in recent years has been to find a building in London suitable for a permanent exhibition of his Discworld paintings. He'd like it 'to be called "Unseen University Museum Library and Art Gallery", and to house books and memorabilia in display cases as well as paintings hanging on the walls.' Despite hopes of using first a baroque orangery built in 1717 and then a Victorian bell tower, this project keeps being delayed by lack of funds and problems with access regulations: bell towers, for example, are not designed for wheelchairs. At present the gallery plan has officially 'gone into the doldrums'. One day, perhaps ...

Meanwhile he lives and paints in an oversized Tudor rectory near Diss, Norfolk, which has space for multiple studios – a large room for large paintings and, logically enough, a small room for small ones. He cheerfully tells interviewers that he's a pauper, since the only way to get rich doing book covers is to work quickly, and: 'I work very, very slowly.' But it adds up to surprisingly many notable paintings over 45 years.

Footnote: So the date 27 November 1928 can have no possible relevance.