Legendary artist Josh Kirby is best known for his fantasy work, but he dabbled in many genres of art. He claimed he wanted to be an artist from the age of 7, but didn't discover fantasy until later. His most famous work is for Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, which he worked on until his death at the age of 72 in 2001.
If ever there was an artist whose body of work put paid to the old adage about a jack-of-all-trades, it’s surely Josh Kirby. Although primarily known as a painter of wildly imaginative, often humorous science fiction and fantasy scenes, and in later years much admired for the covers he produced for Terry Pratchett’s multi-million selling Discworld series, Josh was an artist of the old school with a bewildering number of strings to his artistic bow. It just so happened that out of all the styles and subjects he could turn his hand to, the one that proved the most fulfilling was one with fantastic commercial appeal.Becoming Josh
Born in Liverpool in 1928, Ronald William Kirby was trained at the Liverpool City School Of Art, an establishment renowned for the thorough and practical grounding it gave to students in readiness for a financially successful art career. There, fellow students likened his work to the 18th Century artist Joshua Reynolds, and so the nickname ‘Josh’ was given.
Some success as a portraiture artist followed, but Josh ultimately found its formality restrictive. A stint painting London Underground film posters for an art studio in London was next, and then a brief sojourn working for a film company in Paris. Returning to London, Josh took further classes at St Martin’s and the Central School Of Art, before setting up a studio in Bushey, Hertfordshire. There he would spend half his week producing book covers, and the other half working on his own personal works.
By 1955 Josh had begun to produce artwork for book and magazine covers. Topics ranged from non-fiction to Westerns and crime novels, though it was commissions for science fiction work – visualising stories by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Fritz Leiber – that would prove pivotal to his career.Sci-fi passion
“His interest was just really sparked once he began to get commissions for science fiction work, says Amy Harnell, Executive Director of the Josh Kirby Estate. “Josh was somebody who always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile playing on his lips, and so he was just naturally drawn to subject matter with humour, imagination and interesting quirks.”
From this point Josh consciously chose to carve a career as a science fiction illustrator, though he did continue to embrace a wide range of topics for the next three decades. Relocating to a rectory in the Norfolk village of Shelfanger in 1965, he worked on a wonderfully diverse projects. These included a series of fanciful portraits of film director Alfred Hitchcock, paintings for classics such as Melville’s Moby Dick, personal pieces inspired by Renaissance art, and even a range of paintings for jigsaw sets.
But it was that love of science fiction and fantasy that ultimately drove him. Amy says it was a mission of Josh’s to have science fiction and fantasy recognised as something credible, not only in the art world but also the literary one: “He said many times that he thought it was a vitally important part of culture and society, a way of mapping out paths for possible futures.”Discworld
Many now know Josh best for his Discworld cover art, of course. He fully expected his painting for the launch of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour Of Magic to be a one-off. Instead the book set Terry on a course to become one of the country’s best-loved and best-selling authors (around 50 million sales to date), with Josh providing the artwork for every main book in the series until his death in 2001.
“I don’t think the Discworld work gave him a second wind, as he was already in constant demand, but it was a very happy collaboration,” says Amy. “He liked the humour of the books, and become very fond of the characters. And of course it helped both artist and author in different ways. It became very easy to spot a Terry Pratchett book on the shelves – you can spot Kirby’s art from miles away.”
A number of things set Josh’s work apart from that of other sci-fi and fantasy artists. For one, there was his ability to playful approach. Although never mocking, Josh could always appreciate the humour within the sci-fi and fantasy stories he was illustrating. Then there was his choice of tools. Art in this genre has long been associated with airbrushing, and more recently digital painting techniques. Josh, on the other hand, would meticulously create using oils or gouaches, often spending weeks or even months on a piece.Born to paint
“He would literally get up with the sun, paint all day, and then go to bed,” says Amy. “He simply didn’t consider it a job. He used to say that what he really liked to do in his time off was to paint! So, in addition to the thousands of covers and commercial illustrations, he still found time to do so much personal work.”
But perhaps Josh’s greatest strength was the way he could bring to the mainstream such a solid art grounding, both in terms of practical skills and also knowledge of art history. “What he was painting was outlandish and different, but his techniques gave his work that traditional form, linking it to the work of his predecessors,” says Amy. “He definitely had a respect for modern airbrush and digital artists, but it was artists like Bosch that he loved and was influenced by. He would work in a very classical way, creating paintings that were so involved, well structured, and technically brilliant. He used to say that he stood on the shoulders of the old masters.”
Perhaps Josh put it best of all himself, when he said with typical simplicity and self-effacement: “I am a painter. That’s
what I do. I paint.”