Joshua Kirby was born in 1716 at Parham in Suffolk, the second or third son of John Kirby and Alice Brown. The Kirby family lived at Wickham Market where his father kept a mill. John Kirby is now remembered for his Suffolk Traveller, a book detailing the roads and places of Suffolk, with accompanying large map. The book was published in 1736, and a few years later Kirby’s drawings of Scole Inn appeared. By now in his early twenties, Joshua had moved to Ipswich and obtained work at house-painting. In 1739, he married Sarah Bull. They had four children, of whom two died in infancy. Surviving were a son William, and a daughter Sarah.
Joshua’s brothers, John, Stephen and William all received legal training. John was Under Treasurer at Middle Temple, Stephen died in 1741 while working with his brother, and William married into the local landowning family of Meadowes and spent his career administering his wife’s estates. I know very little about his sisters, none of whom seem to have married.
Kirby’s next project was a series of engravings of local castles, abbeys, and monuments, each dedicated to a local patron, and the set of Twelve Prints accompanied by a brief Historical Account of the locations was published in 1748.
It was around this time that his great friendship with Thomas Gainsborough began, and many of Kirby’s Suffolk subscribers to his Twelve Prints sat to Gainsborough for portraits in the 1750s. It is not clear to me whether Kirby met William Hogarth through Gainsborough or through engravers, but Hogarth became a great promoter of Kirby. After the Twelve Prints, Kirby set to work on writing a volume on perspective painting. The project took several years, with much encouragement from Hogarth, eventually being published as Dr. Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective Made Easy in 1754. This was Kirby’s big break. He gave a series of lectures on perspective to the St. Martin’s Lane Academy that were so well received he was immediately elected a member (many of the members of the Academy had subscribed to the book, with Hogarth taking 6 copies). He moved to London, gave another series of lectures on perspective from his house and rushed out a second edition of the book. Among the many new subscribers to the second edition were Thomas Sandby, Draughtsman to his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and John Shackleton, Principal Painter to his Majesty. Also subscribing was the Earl of Bute, who had charge of the education of the Prince of Wales, and soon appointed Kirby as tutor on perspective to the prince.
After five years as a tutor, and with the accession of his pupil as George III, Kirby, along with his son, was appointed Clerk of the Works at Kew and Richmond, a post he retained for the rest of his life. Kirby was elected to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries in 1767 and in 1768, during a period of furious factionalism was elected President of the Incorporated Society of Artists. Despite strong networking, Kirby was not really a political operator and he was unable to prevent the formation of the rival Royal Academy and fading of the Incorporated Society. He resigned in 1770, and in 1771 his son William died. Kirby’s health deteriorated and he died in 1774.
Kirby has not been well-served by biographers, and the most extensive description of his life is the article, “Joshua Kirby (1716—1774): a Biographical sketch” by Felicity Owen in the Gainsborough’s House Review of 1995.