Born Ronald William Kirby in 1928 at 58 Argo Road, Waterloo (at that date this was in the sub-district of Crosby, County of Lancashire), Liverpool, to Charles William and Ellen (née Marsh) Kirby. His father was a ship owner's freight clerk, and his parents ran a grocery shop. Kirby lived at this address while studying at Liverpool's School of Art.
Kirby dreamed of his future career early on, so that at age 7, 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 famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. The nickname stuck and, from that time forward, few people ever called him by his original name.
After leaving art school, Liverpool City Council commissioned him to paint the Mayor in 1950 – an honour for a 22-year old artist starting out. Kirby ultimately decided against portraiture as a career and turned to illustration.
His professional freelance career started in the early 1950s 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 an emblematic "Bond" for the cover of Ian Fleming's book, 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 appear on the covers of some of the greatest literary science fiction, fantasy and horror books of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The list of famous authors includes 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 as well as Terry Pratchett.
In the 70s, Kirby returned 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; films The 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. He provided cover art for Duelmasters, Tunnels & Trolls and Wizards & Warriors.
Kirby’s most significant move of the 80s was teaming up with Pratchett, a commission that Kirby thought would be a "one-off". He was eventually commissioned to produce the covers for the Discworld series, producing 26 covers before his death in 2001. Beginning with the twenty-seventh Discworld novel, The Last Hero (2001), Paul Kidby took over as cover illustrator.
With the Discworld series, Josh found the perfect canvas for his larger-than-life talent, and his vibrant images inspired many fans to dive head first into the Discworld. Pratchett 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 manipulated and applied in layers. This allowed for them to be retouched or entirely painted over, whatever it took to achieve the result.
Kirby worked slowly and meticulously. It would take him four to eight weeks to complete a single painting because 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 directly with Pratchett – unusual in the publishing world where the convention is to deal with the publisher's art director.
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, whose 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
The Josh Kirby Poster Book (1989), containing 13 posters inspired by Discworld
Faust Eric (1990), by Terry Pratchett with 15 Kirby illustrations
In the Garden of Unearthly Delights (1991), a large selection of 159 Kirby paintings
The Josh Kirby Discworld Portfolio (1993).Best SF Artist (Professional Class), World Science Fiction Convention (1979)
British Fantasy Award for Professional Artist (1996)
Kirby died of natural causes in his sleep at home in Shelfanger near Diss in Norfolk at the age of 72.