Josh Kirby was born a long time ago and frequently referred to himself as ‘unbearably ancient’. Sir Terry Pratchett, who knew a thing or two, darkly hinted at an age of several centuries. While Josh might be world renowned as the first Discworld cover artist, he was highly regarded for his inventive and groundbreaking work in science fiction, horror and fantasy illustration long before his association with Discworld.
In The Beginning
Josh’s prolific career seemed written in the stars when as a small boy Ronald William Kirby dreamed of his future career. “At seven years old I drew a trade sign; ARTIST, for my future life.”
Later he spent six years studying various art techniques at the Liverpool City School of Art (1943-1949), gaining a certificate and diploma in drawing and painting respectively. It was here he picked up the nickname “Josh” where colleagues likened his work to that of the great painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. The nickname stuck and, from that time forward, few people ever called him by his original name.
After the Liverpool City Council commissioned him to paint the Mayor – quite an honour for a twenty two year old artist at the beginning of his career – Kirby decided against the staid life of portrait-painting. That decision made history, launching a career that spanned six decades.
We Have Lift Off
His first published cover painting was produced in 1954 for Cee-Tee Man, a now largely forgotten 1955 science fiction novel by Dan Morgan. Then, in 1956, he touched the edge of the blockbuster James Bond phenomenon with a cover for the first Pan paperback edition of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. But, as he happily admits, the realization that he truly wanted to make illustration his life’s work came with a series of science fiction covers and interiors for Authentic SF magazine in 1956-7.
Since then, Kirby’s work appeared on the book covers of numerous science fiction, fantasy and horror authors, many more than fans who identify him with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld may realize. His personal list of published book covers from 1954 to 2001 runs well over 500. Some of the greatest literary works boast Josh’s inimitable compositions. The list reads like a veritable who’s who of renowned authors, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Hitchcock, Guy de Maupassant, Jimmy Sangster, Richard Matheson, Ursula Le Guin, Jack Kerouac, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein. H. G. Wells, Robert Rankin, Craig Shaw Gardner, Stephen Briggs, Neil Gaiman, Ron Goulart, Brian Aldiss . . . and of course, Sir Terry Pratchett.
A whole new world of possibility opened up in the 70s, when Kirby began to freelance as a poster artist for film publicity agency FEREF. Working alongside designer Eddie Paul, Kirby tapped into his ability to capture the true likeness of a subject, depicting the characters for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Beastmaster and Krull, among many others. When the market for poster illustration dried up in the mid 80s, Kirby switched his attention, and his visionary style, to the booming role-playing game phenomena. His powerful cover art graced Duelmaster, Tunnels & Trolls and Wizards, Warriors and You.
To Boldly Go
But Kirby’s most significant milestone of the 80s was teaming up with Sir Terry Pratchett. With the Discworld series, Josh found the perfect complement for the more fantastically humorous side of his talent, and his larger than life images exploded off the covers, inspiring many fans to dive into the Discworld.
Cover paintings for The Colour of Magic in 1983 and The Light Fantastic in 1986 quickly established Kirby as the illustrator for Discworld — at the time inseparable, like Tenniel for Alice or E.H. Shepard for Winnie-the-Pooh. Sir Terry himself said, “I only invented the Discworld, Josh created it.”
It should be noted, though, that the cognoscenti appreciated Kirby long before fame dug him in the ribs. He exhibited his paintings in London’s Portal Gallery, in 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.
A posthumous retrospective exhibition in 2007 at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, drew people from around the world to marvel at his epic creations.
Kirby’s preferred medium was oil paint applied in thin layers, because it dried slowly, yet not too slowly, and could be easily retouched or overpainted – repeatedly, if need be. Over the years he experimented with but eventually rejected various other media, including watercolour, acrylic paint (which dried far too fast for his taste), gouache and even coloured pencils.
After, in his own words, ‘many false starts’ he produced 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 Sir Terry Pratchett. Although it seems like simple common sense, this artist/author contact and feedback was unusual in the publishing world, where illustrators normally dealt only with art editors. (Is it mere coincidence that authors are so frequently unhappy with their covers? Perish the thought.)
A slow worker, it took Kirby four weeks to complete a single illustration, or eight, counting the preliminary time taken to read the novel, select and visualize suitable images, and draw sketches to work out how they could be best presented.
When asked about influences, he most often named three past artists. The oldest was Hieronymus Bosch, famous for those teeming, surreally fantastic landscapes of heaven and hell. Next was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with his hauntingly detailed groups of warts-and-all Flemish peasants, and finally muralist Frank Brangwyn, who made bold use of colour in his large scale, monumental compositions.
Past collections of his work include:
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
Faust Eric (1990), 15 elaborate Kirby illustrations, written by Sir Terry Pratchett
In the Garden of Unearthly Delights (1991), a large selection of 159 paintings
The Josh Kirby Discworld Portfolio (1993)
A Space Odyssey
Ronald William ‘Josh’ Kirby, artist and illustrator, born November 27 1928; died October 23 2001.