Shelfanger, about three miles from Diss in Norfolk, England, used to have its own school, post office, pub, several shops and a blacksmith's forge. It also used to be the home of one of the most popular fantasy artists who ever lived: Josh Kirby.
All that has gone now, but the four-hundred-year-old Tudor rectory where Kirby lived is still there, tucked down a narrow lane, almost hidden by the surrounding houses. Here is a place where Time has been known to stand still and to do many other unusual things.
Inside, going back a few years now, one had to duck frequently to avoid the low beamed ceilings and lintels and was never sure whether one had reached the end of the rambling house or not, there always seemed to be rooms leading away from rooms, passages, corridors, stairs, until one half-expected to find in one of them the wardrobe which leads to Narnia or long-undisturbed room cleaning pixies leading a dance.
There were books and papers everywhere, apparently unsorted to the uninitiated, but actually eclectically filed; and paintings -room after room, wall after wall, endless windows onto gardens that never existed in our universe, looking out upon worlds that could never have been in the same continuum as our own, so many, so rich, so dense, that before one had gone too far one's steps were giddy and one's mind unsettled, in the nicest possible way.
A large, light-filled studio lay situated somewhere near the top of the house, and the visitor, arriving there, might have felt with confidence that they had discovered the holy-of-holies, the Inner Sanctum of the artist, in which were painted the canvases which became some of the best-loved and most cherished book covers in the world -but the visitor would have been wrong: for somewhere on the ground floor, tucked away so as to be overlooked even when looked for, was a small cupboard-like space which hardly qualified for the title "room": an old butler's pantry, cramped and dusty but filled with light from a narrow window -not just ordinary light, but one of Kirby's precious secrets: "North" light.
There was something very special about the light from that window. He would get up very early in the morning specifically so he could make use of that wonderful clear, clean light. It was here, hidden in his own house which was in turn concealed from the outer world, that Josh Kirby set to work to bridge the gap between reality and the imagination, seven days a week, for year after year -for so long, in fact, and so methodically, that an outsider could be forgiven for believing that things had always been this way.
extending the realm of the possible
But it was over seventy years ago that Josh Kirby had been born, in 1928, far away from Norfolk in the district of Waterloo, Liverpool. Science fiction was not as prevalent back then, the major presences being H.G Wells and Jules Verne, but 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 -it was the genre in which "the realm of the possible was extended".
"Flash Gordon weekly episodes at Saturday morning cinema shows were eagerly awaited, Buck Rogers also," he explained. "American pulp magazines were occasionally seen. The boy's paper 'Modern World' had a slant towards future themes and ideas. That nurtured my fascination with speculative themes." Fascination with the genre didn't guarantee work or a career, though: there was
a long, slow evolution leading up to Kirby's dominance in science fiction illustration, where he later had the freedom to fully explore that realm of the possible.
As he said a few years ago, "The modern field is wonderful because SF is allowed to be SF. There was a great resistance amongst publishers to SF illustration as such. You had to hide it! I didn't feel free to express myself in this area fifteen years ago as comfortably as I do now. With SF now being taught in universities, one can respectably be a science-fiction addict or artist."
escape from war
The barriers along the way were very real: Kirby might not have made it beyond his childhood years had he not been evacuated as a schoolboy from Liverpool, when that city was attacked by enemy bombers during the Second World War. His education continued in a mining valley in South Wales in a commandeered church hall at Abercrave on the banks of the Tawe river at the edge of the Black Mountains, and he lived for a while with a miner's family well away from the devastating onslaught directed at the seaport of Liverpool
He started at the Liverpool City School of Art in 1943, when the main crisis had passed, and gained a certificate in drawing and a Diploma in painting from training of a traditional academic sort, with a bias towards portrait painting, afterwards leaving to seek his fortune in London and returning briefly to Liverpool to paint the presentation portrait of the Lord Mayor, commissioned by the City Council, one of the youngest painters ever to be so commissioned. Around this time, Kirby decided against portraiture as a career, returning to London to continue work in a film poster studio.
decision to be a science-fiction artist
"I decided to be an artist when I was seven years old," he once wrote, "but science fiction as an art form to specialise in came about almost imperceptibly, long after art school, amongst a variety of paperback assignments of varying sorts, not long after I decided to free-lance and after spending some years in the film poster studio. I was very impressed by the works of Powers and Cartier and Emsh. The curious metal objects and sparkling flows of energy being interchanged in the Powers covers especially stimulated me."
But there was a special quality to Kirby's work which set it apart from his competitors and contemporaries. His paintings draw from the deeper well of the past, a channel opened up to him by his traditional training.
link with the old masters
"Of the old masters the work of Hieronymous Bosch and Bruegel seemed to be the forerunners of much in science fiction painting and the influence of their work has been the most profound on me," he wrote. "When I look back over the various influences of my painting life, it is with them I am striving to stay in tune, whilst playing on the science fiction theme. I like the idea of being part of a long-established tradition of science fiction and fantasy painters partaking of a theme common to many civilisations including myths and fairy tales, Rabelais and the like."
While imbuing his work with the techniques and atmospheres of past masters, though, Kirby's horizons remain fresh and challenging. What questions prompted this cutting-edge numinescent quality?
"The problem of man's incompatibility with man on this small planet in a minor system on the fringe of a lesser galaxy in the vastness of space, is a puzzle of absorbing interest and to make my immediate environment more wholesome and as far as possible more civilised, is an ambition and an intent," he once explained. "Why does man violate his environment, render it potentially useless for short term 'gain'? These are themes explored in science fiction rendering it a mode of thought, literature and art worthy of respect and a place in the Humanities."
career in london
There were a few more adventures before Norfolk claimed him for its own. Kirby worked for a film company in Paris, drawn by the historic tradition of painters being nurtured and thriving there and wishing to combine explorative easel painting with a film poster career before returning to England and to London, where he spent evenings at St. Martin's School of Art, drawing from life, and the Central School of Art.
"This was in line with my continuing my easel painting career in most of my spare time. When I eventually went free lance, I got myself a huge ramshackle studio at Bushey in Hertfordshire and spent my week half there painting large scale paintings of a flamboyant kind and the other half on my book covers," he wrote. Here again, and always, was a dynamic intermingling of the traditional and the speculative in his work. At this time, his painting might have gone either way, had it not been for his drive to keep both strands alive. "Trying to retain and continue development of personal expression as a painter, I felt it would be easy to lose sight of my aims without realising I was doing so, if I got totally absorbed by book covers," he said.
As his reputation grew, his work was exhibited at the Portal Gallery and ICA in London and many provincial galleries and paintings began to appear in various collections in England and America.
"As to the Bushey studio, it was one of two rows built by the Baron Von Herkomer," he said. "Assorted artists occupied the still-weatherproof ones, all sporting old 'tortoise' stoves and gas lighting, an idyllic backwater forgotten by progress, ideal to pursue and develop one's work." Eventually, Kirby gave up the studio when he moved to Norfolk and to the Tudor Rectory.
As an artist, Josh Kirby used oils, acrylics, gouache, or watercolor, often using more than one method. Often his paintings were minute, quite often done to actual book cover size.
some books and authors
His covers for the U.S. market appeared chiefly on DAW Books, for which he did many, including "Hail Hibbler" by Ron Goulart and "The Year's Best Fantasy Stories", edited by Lin Carter. He illustrated covers for English editions of books by many of the science fiction greats, including Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Sheckley, and James Blish. As his confidence grew, so did his freedom, his style becoming more and more unrestrained. "I was very much dictated to in those days," he said. "It's only in recent years that I have
been allowed to paint nearer to my own idea of science fiction."
past and future
To the casual observer, then, there may seem to be a paradox, even a clash, between the setting of Kirby's work in the old rectory and its nature -distant future civilisations are depicted in flamboyant, even luxuriant detail, in hundreds of different variations, but all of them hanging upon four-hundred year-old walls in a house built when the Tudor dynasty reigned- yet if one looks a bit deeper this apparent paradox dissolves into the art itself: ancient tradition and radical vision blended together.
"I feel totally up to date," Kirby once wrote. "I feel I live SF, and know what it is about. I think it's a way of life which cuts through the society we live in: Science fiction has a way of thought, a way of looking at things which is not changed by slight trends in fashion -it is a mainstream line which has always justified itself as a part of human culture."