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Ronald William "Josh" Kirby (27 November 1928 – 23 October 2001) was a commercial artist born on the outskirts of Liverpool in the town of Waterloo, Lancashire, United Kingdom. With a career spanning across 6 decades he is world renowned as the original artist for Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, as well as some of the most critically acclaimed science fiction book cover illustrations.
Born Ronald William Kirby at 58 Argo Road, Waterloo (at that date this was in the sub-district of Crosby, County of Lancaster), Liverpool, to Charles William and Ellen (nee Marsh) Kirby. Father's occupation at the time of birth: ship owner's freight clerk. Kirby's parents ran a grocery shop. Kirby lived at this address throughout his period at Liverpool's School of Art.
Josh’s prolific career seemed written in the stars when Ronald William Kirby dreamed of his future career. He was seven years old when he made the trade sign that said “KIRBY - ARTIST”
As a boy, Kirby found a magazine for young people called The Modern World, which pictured a valley of giant insects and futuristic vehicles. Science fiction fascinated him from that point on. It was the genre in which "the realm of the possible was extended."
As a young adult 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 that his Old Master-style portraits earned him the nickname "Josh" when 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 in 1950 - quite an honour for a twenty two year old artist at the beginning of his career - Kirby ultimately decided against portraiture as a career. That decision proved to be history in the making, launching a prolific career that spanned six decades.
His professional freelance career started in the early 1950’s when Kirby illustrated film posters for studios in both London and Paris. His first published cover art was for the 1955 science fiction novel Cee-Tee Man, by Dan Morgan. His next milestone was in 1956 when he created a ‘Bond’ with the greatness that was to follow him throughout his career, by illustrating the cover for Ian Fleming's Moonraker.
Kirby began to produce artwork for book covers ranging from westerns and crime novels to non-fiction, as well as painting covers and interior art for science fiction magazines His groundbreaking illustrations have graced the covers of some of the greatest literary science fiction, fantasy and horror books of the 50’, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The renowned authors list reads like a veritable who’s who, 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, Ron Goulart, Brian Aldiss . . . and of course, Sir Terry Pratchett.
A whole new world of possibility opened up in the 70s, with a return to film poster art for 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.
Kirby’s most significant milestone of the 80s was teaming up with the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, a commission that Josh thought would be a "one-off, he was eventually commissioned to produce the covers for all the Discworld books - more than 25 covers in total.
With the Discworld series, Josh found the perfect canvas for his larger than life talent, and his images exploded off the covers, inspiring many fans to dive head first into the Discworld. Sir Terry Pratchett himself said, "I only invented the Discworld, Josh created it.” This partnership led to more people from around the world marvelling at Kirby’s unmistakable, epic creations.
Throughout his career, Kirby used oils, acrylics, gouache, or watercolor, often using more than one method on a single piece. Ultimately, he preferred oils as they wouldn’t dry too quickly and could be applied in layers. This allowed for them to be retouched or entirely painted over, whatever it took to achieve greatness.
Kirby worked slowly and meticulously. It would take him four to eight weeks to complete a single painting. Why? His process included reading each novel before illustrating it. He would then draw a rough sketch in pencil to be approved by the art editor at the publisher, except in the case where Kirby would discuss the concept over the phone with Sir Terry Pratchett. An artist dealing directly with the author was quite unusual in the publishing world. Ordinarily artists dealt solely with art editors, but then, the Discworld was anything but ordinary.
When asked about influences, he most often named three past artists. The oldest was Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his fantastic imagery, detailed landscapes and illustrations of religious concepts and narratives. Next was Pieter Bruegel, who’s religious and mythological depictions expanded the viewer’s perspective of reality. And finally muralist Frank Brangwyn, an avante-garde artist-craftsman notable for his boldly coloured murals.
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).
Best SF Artist (Professional Class), World Science Fiction Convention (1979)
British Fantasy Award for Professional Artist (1996)
Detail of the cover art showing Kirby's cameo.
- Terry Pratchett remarks on this cameo in the introduction to The Art of Discworld.