Artwork for the 1958 Panther cover of the book by F Van Wyck Mason. Painted 1957/8.
In his early career Kirby painted covers for numerous ‘pulp’ novels, subsequently keeping a low profile over his involvement in many such jobs. However, they enabled him to cut his teeth in the industry, building relationships with important publishers like Corgi, who subsequently gave him regular work. The themes he worked with were wide ranging, from adventures and westerns to war and romance, with Tarzan and James Bond along the way.
Photography was increasingly used on book jackets but Kirby was one of a group of accomplished artists to secure repeat commissions for painted covers. For some of these, using skills learned at Liverpool’s Art School, he also created the typography.
Most of the covers displayed here were produced when Kirby was living and working in London in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Owing to the lack of detailed records for this period in his career it is sometimes tricky to pin down dates and publication details. But, stamped with the ‘vibe’ of the era in which they were created, they are classics of their kind.
Science Fiction Novels
Kirby’s paintings have appeared on the covers of some of the 20th century’s most celebrated science fiction novels and anthologies. The first was for Dan Morgan’s little-known Cee-Tee Man (1954), but it was on the cover of the influential Authentic Science Fiction Magazine that he really started to make his mark.
As the popularity of sci-fi literature mushroomed during the later 1950s and beyond, Kirby progressed to work on a freelance basis for many major publishers of the genre, including Panther, Corgi, Mayflower and DAW. He frequently created multiple covers for established authors, including Ray Bradbury and Ron Goulart, earning the standard fee of around £50 per cover in the 1960s rising to several hundred by the 1980s.
Kirby’s thematic and stylistic output was diverse, spanning battles, imperilled humans, robots, lunar landscapes and alien life-forms, often with striking originality, humour and a suitably extraterrestrial use of colour. His grotesque aliens remain widely admired. Sometimes closely interpreting an author’s words, at others subjected to an art editor’s censorship, he was occasionally given a free reign to let his surreal imagination run riot.