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Transcript of 'Out of this world' tour podcast

[This talk begins in the small entrance gallery and then moves through into the main exhibition hall]

Welcome to 'Out of this world: the art of Josh Kirby'.

Just a few words to begin with about Ronald William Kirby. He was born and raised in Liverpool. At the age of 14, he enrolled in the Liverpool School of Art. At that time, I wasn't aware of this, you could enrol in the junior section of the Liverpool School of Art. He spent the next six years there. Which is pretty extraordinary.

So, from the age of 14 to the age of 20, he spent six years at Liverpool School of Art. During which time, he picks up a great deal, we gather, of art history. A passion for Flemish painters, early German painters like Bosch, comes into his work later on, these crowded canvases of grotesques.

In 1950, he's commissioned at the age of 22 to paint the portrait of the alderman Joseph Jackson Cleary, Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Age of 22, a very young age for such a commission. A rather stodgy commission really, very conventional thing to be asked to do - paint a picture of the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Presumably in all his ceremonial robes. I haven't seen it, but it's presumably one of these dusty things they have in the Town Hall.

The fact that he was asked to do this explains perhaps his nickname. The nickname he was given while he was at art school was Josh, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th century portrait painter. It was almost as if at that time he was recognised as in many ways an old-fashioned painter.

At the same time, from 1950 on he's backwards and forwards to London. He moves to London in 1950, comes back to paint the Lord Mayor. He settled in Battersea, attended life classes at St Martins School of Art and the Central School of Art. During the 1960s he starts experimenting with things like this. It owes a lot to early Picasso and Matisse. He's almost experimenting in pastiches of early 20th century modernism.

Over here, these three here were all done in the 1960s. Abstract pictures. There are a lot of these apparently in the Josh Kirby Estate. A lot of these abstract pictures. Lots of loose paint. All done on hardboard, 1960s if you were an art student, that's what you used. Cheap as chips and you could get as much hardboard as you wanted. There's even still nail marks there where it's been nailed.

These here are some studies from life. A fantastic draughtsman. Absolutely marvellous draughtsman. Obviously his time at Liverpool Art School, he built on that. Down in St Martins and Central School he attended life classes again. All of which were suitable for the career he was going to follow.

I remember during the 1960s in Liverpool I had a very vague ambition to be an artist. I said to my father, 'What about being an artist?'. He said, 'You can't be an artist because you can't make a living out of being an artist unless you're really big. And then, even if you're big, it's only other people who make money out of you when you're dead'.

This was the normal thing. But, I was told the only avenue for an art student now, in the 1960s, was to become a commercial artist. It was the first time I'd ever heard the idea of a commercial artist. Somebody who paints, draws, designs book covers, record covers, advertising posters, anything that requires painting, that isn't photography.

Anything like these over here. This is the real start of the exhibition. These covers. He started producing these in London during the 1960s. Things like this. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but nobody believes that, everybody judges a book by its cover.

Something like this, 'Don't Touch Me', by Mackinlay Kantor, a startling novel of a man and woman without shame caught up in the ferocity of war. Absolutely fantastic stuff! 'Don't Touch Me', the title belied by the close clinch on the cover.

This, 'The Hot and the Cool', a 'profane and powerful novel of life and love in the frantic world of jazz'.

This one here is interesting. This is the cover design for this book, 'Young Man With a Horn'. It's by Dorothy Baker, not Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Baker. Dorothy Baker's first novel was this. 1938 it was first published. It's a fictionalised account of the career of Bix Baederbecke, the horn player. 'The world famous novel of a jazz musician who burned himself out in a few frenzied years of glory'.

In the design, notice the bottle. There's a woman lying on the bed. So that gives us immediately a sense of loucheness and risqueness. It's a risky subject. Woman lying on a bed smoking a cigarette with a cigarette holder. The absolute height of 1960s sophistication. There he is, he's carrying his horn, sitting on the edge of the bed and we can be fairly sure that they're not married. There's a bed, she's lying there, he's sitting there on the edge and to make matters far, far worse, there's a bottle of whisky.

Interestingly, the bottle of whisky is full and the glass is half-full so there must be an empty bottle lying around somewhere. A bottle of Canadian Club. Interestingly, when this picture was used for the cover the bottle was cropped out. It's cropped out. It's almost as if the combination of a single woman, lying on a bed and alcohol in the same picture was just too much.

So, the alcoholic element of the picture is scrubbed out. Bix Beiderbecke, part of the burning out process was alcoholism.

Down here you've got 'The Vikings'. This is the novelisation. Kirk Douglas with the one eye. That's the one eye. Always struck me as odd in the film, a hawk claws his eye out but he ends up with this milky eye. Would have been far better with a patch I would have thought, leave it to the imagination.

Kirk Douglas there, Tony Curtis not apparent. Janet Leigh. Gregory Peck.

Now this is 'Moby Dick'. The film by John Huston came out in 1956/7. I know this for a fact. 1956, it was released in America, 57 it came over here. This would have been done on the tail of the release of the film just to cash in on 'read the book, see the film'. You'd be really disappointed if having seen the film, to get this huge, unreadable tome by Herman Melville, 'Moby Dick'.

This is what he starts out doing. These fantastic things. Lewis V Cummings' 'I was a headhunter'. 'True, but will you believe this astonishing story?'. The answer is 'No', you don't believe it but it's a marvellous cover. And then 'Jungle Man', Major PJ Pretorius, African jungle adventure, white hunter's thrilling life story. Fantastic stuff.

At that time you used to just look at these covers. I remember so many novels at that time and I can only really picture the covers, never having read them just loomed over them in bookshops.

So, that brings us to science fiction, the science fiction covers so it's through here.

[At this point the talk moves into the main exhibition gallery]

Just over there. In this case here. When he started producing covers for science fiction books, he was paid a standard fee of £50 per cover. All throughout the 1960s, this gradually went up until he was now getting several hundred for a cover by the 1980s. His covers were very successful and you can see how successful they are because Corgi produced one edition of Ray Bradbury's 'The Illustrated Man' and reprinted it and commissioned another cover from Josh Kirby. So there's two separate Josh Kirby covers for 'The Illustrated Man'.

Similarly for 'Fahrenheit 451' for Ray Bradbury. It was illustrating the covers of Ray Bradbury that really caught his imagination. 'Fahrenheit 451', we all know the novel, supposedly the temperature at which paper burns. It's not. Apparently paper burns at a much lower temperature at that. Ray Bradbury plucked the figure out of the air without any scientific basis in fact.

There are a couple of designs for 'Fahrenheit 451'. This one here shows this robotic spindly dog with 8 legs. This robot is supposed to sniff out books in the novel and then the firemen come in who instead of putting out fires, burn books.

But Ray Bradbury's 'Illustrated Man' had an important effect on some of the themes in Josh Kirby's work. 'The Illustrated Man' is a series of short stories. It's all built around a man in a circus tattooed and at night the tattoos on the body come to life and tell each story in the anthology. It was what they called a portmanteau novel where you produce one book made up of lots of different stories with a central theme.

It's a short step from illustrating science fiction to illustrating horror.

Over here, you've got Melmoth the Wanderer, produced by Four Square Books. Like Moby Dick it's practically unreadable by most people. 18th century gothic novel, a huge thing with some really good bits but a heck of a lot to work through. But with a cover like this people bought it, in paperback.

Edgar Allen Poe. Notice this little picture of Edgar Allen Poe here where the face is actually made up of snakes. This is one of the themes that comes from 'The Illustrated Man' cover. He uses it again with these pictures for Alfred Hitchcock's anthologies. 'Stories they wouldn't let me do on television' by Alfred Hitchcock. Nothing to do with him really, he didn't even select the stories in the anthology, he just put his name to it.

Again, short stories, 'games killers play'.

There you have Alfred Hitchcock with all these skulls and gory elements there superimposed onto his face. Like the 'Illustrated Man' cover. Also like the Italian painter Arcimboldo. Produced grotesque portraits of people made up of fruit and books and stuffed animals which when you look at them from a slight distance they look like faces.

Then we come to Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett is one of the key figures in this entire exhibition. These pictures here, it's not actually in sequence, come from a rather late project that Josh Kirby took on with Terry Pratchett. It's called 'Eric' and it's an illustrated book where the entire book is made up of double page illustrations.

The double page illustrations, notice this here, this is the artwork, this space here left by Kirby is for text. As is this space here. Again, this space here is where the page division would go. Double page spread, text here and text here. Again, text here, text there.

The difference is, here, this is the cover and it shows you one of the things about Josh Kirby's cover designs, it's designed with the spine there. That's where the spine is. There's a lot of covers in this exhibition. In each case you have this is the front of the dust wrapper and this is the back. The front has a space here, generally speaking, for the title. And a larger space over here for the blurb on the back.

This one here. This is a picture of Discworld, Terry Pratchett's sequence of novels called Discworld. I must confess, I've read twenty pages of Terry Pratchett, but it was enough, I got the general idea. This is the Discworld and it's described in the first 20 pages. The Discworld is a round flat world, balanced on four elephants which in turn are balanced on a large turtle who swims through space.

Incidentally, this was originally one of the double-page spreads in the picture book and there was originally a large space left blank here. Once the artwork had been submitted and the text had been put in here, Josh Kirby got this back and then filled in this section.

This is quite a key picture because it shows the Discworld imaginative concept. The Discworld as described in the first book, 'The Great Turtle was a mere hypothesis until the day the small and secretive kingdom of Kroll, whose rims and most mountains project over the rimfall, built a gantry and pully arrangement at the tip of the most precipitous crag and lowered several observers over the edge in a quartz windowed brass vessel to peer through the mist veil'.

That's this little vessel, lowered down, and the observers can then see the elephants that are supporting the Discworld. And they can also see this large turtle. It goes on 'The early astro-zoologists, hauled back from their long dangle by enormous teams of slaves, were able to bring back much information about the shape and nature of the turtle and the elephants, but this did not resolve fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of the universe'.

There are two theories in the Discworld about the nature and origin and purpose of the universe. The two theories being that the turtle has always been crawling across the universe and always will till the end of time. This is called the Steady State theory of the universe. There's another theory that the turtle is on a journey from birth to the mating ground along with all the other turtles carrying all the other stars in the universe. And they're all converging on the mating ground and after mating billions of baby turtles carrying stars are created and the whole process starts again.

And this mass cosmic mating is known as the Big Bang theory of the universe.

So, that's the basic idea of the Discworld. Various characters are introduced into the Discworld. This is one, Rincewind, a cowardly magician whose motto is 'I run therefore I am'. He is constantly panicking and running away from things.

You've got 'Death' and 'Death' in the Discworld novels always speaks in block capitals and he is rather a personable character. He has a little sidekick, a miniature Death who is a miniature rat skeleton who is called 'Death of Rats' and he also carries on him the 'Death of Fleas', a little flea skeleton. It's all rather absurd.

Along here, if you come this way, this design here is for the colour of magic. It's the very first of the Discworld series. It was originally published in 1983 but the first cover, designed by Josh Kirby, was for the 1984 edition. Again, you see this is the cover. You've got the spine, occupying this line here. You've got this blank space here left for the title. I think this is for the blurb and this down here is for in more modern editions the barcode.

Except in Hebrew. This is a Hebrew translation of this first novel, 'The Colour of Magic'. In a Hebrew book the entire thing is reversed so you actually start the opposite way of a western book. In order to get this over here they just reversed it so it's a mirror reversal of this cover. That there is the front cover.

Various characters here. There's a character called 'Twoflower'. This is Twoflower. In the very first novel, in the first 20 pages that I read, he's described as having four eyes and Kirby painted him with four eyes. He's got a pair of eyes there and another pair of eyes on the side. Later on in the book it's revealed that he hasn't really got four eyes, it only looks like he has because he's wearing spectacles. The interesting thing is, I think, that this shows that Josh Kirby didn't read the entire book.

He inserted Twoflower there with his four eyes and in every other place where Twoflower appears in the covers he's always got spectacles except for in this first one.

This creature here is called 'The Luggage'. It's a trunk made of magic wood. It has infinite capacity. It's used as a form of transport and it has its own legs and its own mind. Its owners rely on it.

There are various other things that Josh Kirby got slightly wrong in his interpretation of Terry Pratchett's world. This character here is the first time that the witch Granny Weatherwax appears. She is shown with lots of warts and gaps in her teeth. Terry Pratchett pointed out to Josh Kirby that the whole point about Granny Weatherwax is that she feels inferior as a witch because she doesn't have any warts and that she's got all her own teeth.

Whereas Josh Kirby's actually produced a conventional picture of a witch, this is not the way it should be. Kirby argued you wouldn't know she was a witch if she didn't have warts and black teeth.

There were various little hitches like that in the relationship between Terry Pratchett and Josh Kirby. Pratchett notably said that 'I conceived the Discworld, Josh Kirby created it'.

The top right picture over there is a picture of the inside of a submarine which was designed for the front cover of a particular book and then the publishers rejected it because it actually gave away a key part of the plot - that they were in a submarine. It had to be redrawn.

Very often he did things like that. He would actually go ahead with the design before he'd got the rough draft okayed by the publisher.

This brings us to the actual composition of the covers. These are all covers. We know they're covers because you could imagine the vertical line there is the spine, the large space for the blurb, a smaller space there for the lower part of the blurb and a large space there for the title. In every case.

The actual composition is interesting. It's based on something called the 'Danube spiral'. This came as a complete mystery to me. I'd never heard of it, but the Danube spiral is supposed to be a compositional form which was notably present in  a lot of the painters of the Danube Basin. Like Altdorfer to name but one.

The point about the Danube spiral is that it goes like this. It starts here and it goes round like that and then it comes to a rest there. The lower point of the right hand side of the composition is the focal point of the scene. This, here, with Rincewind. This, here, with the monkey librarian.

It works very well for a wraparound cover because the spiral goes round like that and comes to a rest below the title and so, that is your central motif of the cover and it works every time. Again, like that, there. Especially here where you've actually got a theatre audience and it actually curves round and ends up there.

Apparently Josh Kirby had no idea he was doing this. He had no idea what a Danube spiral was but he was very pleased when it was explained to him that that was what he'd been doing all along.

It makes sense though, as the Danube spiral works perfectly as a cover design.

Here is the Discworld Death and that there is the Death of Rats, sitting on his knee. So, there's the Discworld of Terry Pratchett.

Over here is something completely different. It is this. It's unlike anything else in the show. It's a brobdingnagian still life. It's so extraordinary to see a still life of this size because normally when one thinks about it a still-life should be about life-size. A bowl of fruit.

To have an epic still life like this really is quite extraordinary. It's something of a mystery how it came to be painted. There is apparently an invoice in the Josh Kirby archive. An invoice dated 1971. It was the invoice for two still lives for a magazine called 'The Illustrators'.

This is one of them, but why he painted such a huge still-life for a magazine called 'The Illustrators' is a mystery.

Apparently, after 1971, he re-worked it a lot. He was actually re-working this for years afterwards. It's a marvellous thing. Quite extraordinary. Unlike anything else in the exhibition.

If you come round here we get into the uncomfortable world of Scientology. Over here, the work of L Ron Hubbard. L Ron LaFayette Ronald Hubbard (1911 - 1986). A science fiction writer, a western writer who invented his own theory of Dianetics and ended up founding the Church of Scientology - a notoriously litigious organisation so I'm going to be very careful about what I say about it.

As far as I can gather the Church of Scientology believes that we all come from alien intelligence and the chosen, people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, are high alien intelligences.

Josh Kirby was not a Scientologist. This we know. He was interested in ideas of religion and science fiction and L Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology is essentially the religion of science fiction. This is L Ron Hubbard's 'Battlefield Earth', a late novel which is very much imbued with his Church of Scientology teachings.

Battlefield Earth has a hero called Jonnie Goodboy Tyler who is a great aryan hero, he-man. The evil villain is Terl the Psychlo. This is Terl the Psychlo here and this is little Jonnie Goodboy Tyler.

Over here, you have the cover of a book of short stories, originally written by L Ron Hubbard and then collected in the 1970s under the title 'Old Doc Methuselah'. Old Dock Methuselah is a chap who travels the solar system writing wrongs and curing diseases and corruption and the like, evils. L Ron Hubbard appears here. This is a portrait of L Ron Hubbard in Josh Kirby's design.

From this idea of religion and science fiction, we come to this very important project over here of Josh Kirby's. It's called the 'Ayeguy series'.

In the late 1970s, Kirby was approached by an American publisher and what they were interested in was a portfolio of six prints to be produced in portfolio form and Josh Kirby had an absolute free hand, he could do really what he liked. The only stipulation was that it would have a linking theme to it.

Josh Kirby created the Ayeguy, the 'Voyage of the Ayeguy' to be precise. Essentially it's a retelling of the Christian story in science fiction terms. He produced these six designs here. The publishers, when they received the designs, they wanted some explanation from Josh Kirby and he reluctantly agreeed to produce a narrative. A verbal narrative along with the series of illustrations. He didn't really want to but he did. Unfortunately. The actual narrative is risible. It shows that people like Josh Kirby should be allowed to what they do best - illustrate - not have to create a prose narrative.

When you read what Josh Kirby writes about the Voyage of the Ayeguy, you realise just how good Terry Pratchett is. This is portentous rubbish really.

This is the first of the Ayeguy series. It's called 'Departure' and it has the mothership of the Ayeguy provisioned and ready to blast across the vastness of the nether reaches of space. The order, emblazoned and vivid in the crews' minds 'Go civilise the savage planets'.

This is the second one, this is the 'Arrival of The Arc', disgorging men and machines to civilise the Imag people. The Imag people are these little people here. An anagram of magi. The mothership here is tethered to the magnetic horns of Dongon. One of these fantasy worlds full of absurd names like Dongon.

This here is the 'Adoration of the Imag', the adoration of the magi in which the newly arrived Christ-figure, the spaceman, is adored.

Here, you have the death of the spaceman. The spaceman is called Jay Zuzz. First name Jay, second name Zuzz. Jay Zuzz. There he is. He's actually crucified on something called the Kanzon treelith. This is described by Josh Kirby as 'Jay Zuzz is crucified on the Kanzon treelith, pinned and spiked, till he moves no more. The Imag grieve and bicker on the one hand for his loss - who will say how? - and on the other hand for who shall have what of his earthly artefacts, bit by bit, unclasped from his lifeless form. The dice game will decide. Winner takes all'.

Over here you have Jay Zuzz being lowered with care from the Kanzon treelith. The Imag have brought Sensor the robot to clear the minds of the vapours of Loth. Wonderful stuff. The Vapours of Loth. To help them remember their actions. Actions that can break what they value most. The maidens of the inlands seas of Varvor look where they will when the langours of Loth mist descend.

The maidens of Varvor. Great thing about Josh Kirby's science fiction design is that it's full of nubile maidens. These extraordinary, great pneumatic female creatures which are figures of fantasy.

Over here, you have the final sequence. 'The Mothership returns, activates the light guidance ascender beam to boost Jay’s rover pack. Jay’s suit medicure unit has renewed vital fluids, healed broken fibres, restored pulsing tissue. Jay lives once more and feels the suction of the antigrav as he nears the sanctuary of the Ark'. It's a case of beam me up Scotty actually. 'Oil smooth limbs, silk metal-skinned robots hiss and glide on roller feet. A soft maiden of Varvor has thoughts of times that might have been'.

That's the sequence.

This is the design for the cover of the portfolio. Again, the Danube spiral here, you go up like that. Having created these six designs, he couldn't really let it go and he kept on making more designs. This is a large composition, not part of the portfolio but obviously related to it, it's called 'Go civilise the savage planets' and it reworks that portfolio design. Lots of nubile maidens here and over here is the Ark, the mothership, about to blast off.

There is Jay Zuzz, of course, Jay Zuzz and his father, pointing out that he is to go and civilise the savage planets.

Over here, you have 'Resurrection'. Another idea of the resurrection. This is the antigrav kicking in and sending him plummeting up back to the mothership. Interestingly, this structure here seems to be based on a crab's claw. Again, nubile maidens. A constant theme in Josh Kirby's art.

This one here is specifically religious in tone, 'Behold the spaceman', in which the spaceman, bound, is exhibited to the Imag. Behold the man, ecce homo.

Lastly, here, this one is another deposition scene in which the dead spaceman is lowered into the tomb from the Treelith of Kanzon.

This is another one as well. Again, he was constantly replaying this Ayeguy sequence. One of the interesting things about these large scale Ayeguy designs is that he was very influenced by the murals of Frank Brangwyn in the early part of the 20th century. The thing about Frank Brangwyn's murals is they were densely packed compositions with views across distant landscape.

Josh Kirby acknowledged how important Frank Brangwyn's compositional devices were. If you look at some of the six plates of the Ayeguy series, there are two specific references to Frank Brangwyn on little tablets in the composition. One of them says 'Thanks Brangy boyo'. And the other one says, 'Welsh as well as English to be frank. Thanks, boyo'. As obvious an acknowledgement as you can wish for.

We're leaving Terry Pratchett far behind now. This is a private commission. It was actually painted for an American admirer of Josh Kirby. Obviously a man who collected all the Terry Pratchett books and admired Kirby's artwork. He approached Kirby with an order, a commission. He wanted something very specific. It had to have the four horsemen of the apocalypse and also something which is almost a conflation of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the seven deadly sins.

These four beasts being Chaos, Lust, Hate and Madness. All conflated into this great apocalyptic scene. It would not work as a cover design for instance. The spine would go there and it just wouldn't work. It's symmetrical, it's a centrally placed composition.

The reason why this is here is interesting. Josh Kirby never let anything out of his possession. Up to a point. All the designs he did for book designs, book covers. These here. All these are for an American fantasy horror science fiction writer by the name of Craig Shaw Gardner. These are Craig Shaw Gardner's take on the Arabian Nights. This is the other Sinbad. This is 'A Bad Day for Alibaba'. And this is 'Sheherazade's Night Out'.

All of these are cover designs, with that central thing there for the spine and the spaces for title, author and blurb I mentioned earlier. They are all characterised by this Danube spiral. All.

In every case when an author gets a Josh Kirby cover they would often say, 'Can I have it? Can I have the original artwork?'. Kirby always refused. He kept all the original artwork for the covers and that is why this exhibition has been possible, because it is practically all from the Josh Kirby archive.