Josh Kirby

27 November 1928 - 23 October 2001

The artist Josh Kirby was best known and appreciated for the lushly crowded cover paintings he created for Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, from The Colour of Magic in its 1984 paperback to this year's Thief of Time. His career as a professional artist began much earlier, though, as did his love of the fantastic.

Born on 27 November 1928, he was christened Ronald William Kirby and acquired the nickname Josh while studying at the Liverpool City School of Art (1943-49): "some wag thought I painted like Sir Joshua Reynolds!" After a period of commercial work in film posters, he began selling book and magazine cover art in the mid-1950s. Fondly remembered early paintings include the jacket for the first Pan paperback of Ian Fleming's Moonraker in 1956, and a rousing space-battle on a 1957 issue of Authentic SF magazine – illustrating a story by up-and-coming SF author Brian Aldiss. "My first cover," Aldiss remembers. "It was a great event."

Kirby's SF painting style tended to feature bulbous, organic-seeming machines and strange lines of force. His list of acknowledged book covers, published in his 1999 art book A Cosmic Cornucopia, meticulously includes every painting with a touch of the fantastic, futuristic or horrific, while omitting "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." Thus his painting for a novelization of The Camp on Blood Island (1958), highly regarded by connoisseurs of paperback art and even included as a vignette on Hammer's film poster, remained unacknowledged. Nevertheless his official list runs to more than 400 cover paintings.

A generation of British science fiction fans remembers the 1960s Kirby covers for Ray Bradbury's The Silver Locusts and others, including The Illustrated Man – whose framing device, a man with animated tattoos that tell stories, particularly fascinated the artist. His string of paintings for Alfred Hitchcock's (usually ghosted) horror/suspense anthologies rang the changes on the director's familiar, bulky appearance, often building up the face from suitable images of horror, somewhere between that tattooed man and an Arcimboldo figure. Later portraits of Terry Pratchett likewise show him as an illustrated man, his features alive with Discworld characters.

For all his love of SF imagery, Kirby preferred to work slowly in old-fashioned oils, wrote business letters by hand (deciphering them was sometimes a challenge), and would have nothing to do with e-mail. His artistic heroes included Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose different brands of grotesquerie are combined to comic effect in the crowded and bizarre Discworld paintings, where witches tend to be archetypally warty and heroines busty irrespective of their actual text descriptions. Kirby also felt himself greatly influenced by the bold colour and large-scale compositions of the muralist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956).

In letters and in person he conveyed a mildly eccentric charm, grumbling with cheerful relish about his own supposed lack of commercial sense. How idiotic to have painted definitive Discworld jackets that endured through countless UK reprintings, rather than having the chance of a new interpretation and fee every few years! (Early slips haunted Josh, like the depiction of a bespectacled Pratchett character with four literal eyes owing to unfamiliarity with the old "four-eyes" gibe.) How insane that he could no longer bear to part with his original paintings, even for ready money! There were long-cherished hopes, never fulfilled in his lifetime, of a permanent Kirby gallery.

Apart from the Discworld phenomenon, its many spinoffs, and commissions for similarly exuberant art to boost the sales of other funny fantasies, two series of uncomic "science fantasy" paintings were close to Kirby's heart. One is his sequence of covers for Robert Silverberg's Majipoor novels, set on a vast, dreamy and many-coloured world where impossible castles and sinuous sea-serpents gave opportunities for the artist's favourite spiral-curved compositions. The other is The Voyage of the Ayeguy – an intense personal vision of an SF messiah whose mission, death and resurrection were revisited again and again in elaborately composed paintings full of voluptuous figures and technology. Kirby had begun a new Ayeguy painting shortly before his death.

Much of his work is collected in books and portfolios, the largest selections being In the Garden of Unearthly Delights (1991) and A Cosmic Cornucopia (1999). The Voyage of the Ayeguy first appeared as a 1981 portfolio, since expanded by new paintings and elaborations of old ones; several examples feature in Unearthly Delights. Further collections are The Josh Kirby Poster Book (1990) and The Josh Kirby Discworld Portfolio (1993). For the illustrated Discworld novella Eric (1990) he shared cover credit with Terry Pratchett, who constructed his story as a series of lavish Kirby picture opportunities; publishers being publishers, the text was later reissued without the artwork. Another opportunity – like the iniquities of art editors who mirror-reversed his work, and even rejected one fine Discworld painting that gave away a plot turn – for Josh to enjoy an entertaining grumble.

Josh Kirby was 72 when he died unexpectedly at his home and studio, a former Tudor rectory near Diss in Norfolk. He is survived by his partner Jackie Rigden. Few commercial genre artists have been so widely admired, and indeed loved.