Out of this World: the art of Josh Kirby

Illustration of a turtle flying through space with a world on its back

15 June - 30 September 2007

Exploring a colourful world teeming with other-worldly characters, creatures, fantasy cities and landscapes, 'Out of this World: the art of Josh Kirby' was the first major retrospective of the Liverpool-born artist.

This exhibition spanned Kirby's artistic career from his early days as a freelance artist to his famous cover illustrations for Terry Pratchett's Discworld and Eric/Faust fantasy books.

Kirby’s work has adorned the covers of some of the most iconic science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as famous film posters such as Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and Monty Python's Life of Brian. The exhibition displayed his best-known work alongside the less familiar, including his stylish illustrations for Corgi and Panther publishers in the 1950s and 60s. It provided a unique opportunity to view Kirby's often highly complex paintings un-cropped and in their original format.

Josh Kirby

Many people are familiar with Josh Kirby’s work without realising it. His paintings have adorned some of our most popular film posters and books. Yet long before his association with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Kirby was an established science fiction and fantasy artist, highly regarded for his inventive and skilful work.

Born Ronald William Kirby in Liverpool’s Waterloo district, he studied at Liverpool City School of Art from 1943 until 1948. Settling in London in around 1951, he worked as an artist in film and commercial advertising. Kirby progressed to painting book covers, coming to specialise in science fiction and fantasy.

From 1965 until his death Kirby lived in an old Norfolk rectory, painting in a cramped pantry space no bigger than a cupboard. There he created much of his best known work. His heroes and heroines are archetypal fantasy figures; his scenes infused with ribald humour. Fantasy art is often associated with airbrushing but Kirby’s works were meticulously hand-painted, usually in gouaches or oils, over a period of four to eight weeks.

In a long career he illustrated hundreds of book covers, but found time to create many deeply personal paintings. Kirby’s interest in historical art was palpable, and he acknowledged a debt to artists including Bosch, Bruegel and Brangwyn. But ultimately, Kirby developed a vision that was uniquely his own.

This exhibition comprised works touching upon many aspects of Kirby’s output drawn from the collection held by the Trustees of his Estate. Research into Kirby’s work is continuing. It is the hope of everyone involved in this project that a comprehensive publication will be published in the future.

These web pages feature a selection of the images from the exhibition. Images used with the permission of the Trustees of the Josh Kirby Estate.