Ronald William "Josh" Kirby (27 November 1928 – 23 October 2001) was an English commercial artist born on the outskirts of Liverpool in Waterloo, Lancashire. He is widely known as the artist for Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of books.
Josh Kirby was educated at the Liverpool City School of Art, where he acquired the nickname Josh, which comes from having his work compared to that of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The nickname stuck and Kirby was rarely called by his real name later. He died unexpectedly, of natural causes, in his sleep at home in Shelfanger near Diss in Norfolk at the age of 72.
Josh 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 "Josh" which became his working name: 'When I was at Art School, some wag thought I painted like Sir Joshua Reynolds!'
When asked about influences, he most often names three past artists. Hieronymus Bosch 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 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.'
After an early commission by Liverpool City Council to paint their Mayor, quite an honour for an artist at the beginning of his career yet 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.
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, Kirby painted film-posters, magazine and book covers. Creating a total of over 400 cover paintings, including the literary works of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Sangster, Richard Matheson, Jack Kerouac, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells. His personal preference was for science fiction jackets and his work on the covers of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels. He also created the poster art for Monty Python's Life of Brian, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Beastmaster and Krull.
In 1991, Paper Tiger Books published a graphic album collecting some commercial and private works by Kirby, titled In the Garden of Unearthly Delights (a reference to Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights). This was followed in 1999 by another graphic album titled A Cosmic Cornucopia, which includes extensive text by David Langford and two chapters dedicated to his work for Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
He worked almost exclusively in oils.
In 1979, Josh won Best Science Fiction Artist at the World Science Fiction Convention and 1996 he took home the British Fantasy Award for Best Artist.
Detail of the cover art showing Kirby's cameo.
- Terry Pratchett remarks on this cameo in the introduction to The Art of Discworld.
- Official Site
- Josh Kirby at L-Space Web
- Josh Kirby bibliography
- 'Out of this world: the art of Josh Kirby' exhibition
- Josh Kirby at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
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