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Early work

Black and white photo of a man reclining

Some of Kirby's early works can be seen on the studio wall behind him. © Michael Ward

Kirby was seven when he made a trade sign ‘KIRBY – ARTIST’. Following time evacuated to Wales during the War, he progressed upwards from the Junior section at Liverpool’s City School of Art to become a successful student. His wide-ranging art education included drawing, lettering and painting. Kirby’s Old Master-style portraits earned him the nickname ‘Josh’, after Sir Joshua Reynolds and led to an invitation to paint Liverpool’s mayor in 1950. Despite this, portraiture failed to inspire him as a career.

In London he settled in Battersea and continued to study life-drawing at evening classes. In the mid-1950s he also secured a studio at Bushey, Hertfordshire, in the complex built by the Victorian artist, Hubert von Herkomer. This provided space to make larger work. When not working on commercial jobs he painted large, bold nudes influenced by Matisse and Picasso and later, expressive, warmly-toned abstracts.

Failing to find a market for this personal work, and as the number of book cover commissions increased, Kirby gradually started to focus on the type of painting that was to earn him his future reputation, underpinned by years of traditional art training in Liverpool.

A group of highly-worked watercolours, probably all produced during Kirby’s time at the Art School (one has a Liverpool City School of Art stamp on the reverse), have recently come to light and are shown here. They appear to show Kirby experimenting with different artists’ styles, including Walter Sickert and Paul Nash.

These images are shown courtesy of Sarah Colegrave 19th & 20th Century Pictures.