Born in Dagenham in 1935, Kiff studied at first pottery, then stained glass, before eventually turning to painting at the Hornsey School of Art, 1955-61. Later he taught at various art colleges himself, including Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art. As a lyrical and poetic figurative painter in the mid-60s, his work was quite out-of-time with the cheek and in-the-now of Pop Art, or with the emerging reaction of Minimalism and Conceptualism.
From the start his heightened colours and dream-like scenes might resemble those of a children’s fairytale or a child’s nightmare. Humans or animals took centre-stage in barely outlined landscapes, with violations of scale and perspective which had echoes of the work of his favourite painter, Chagall, and paid homage to the style and concision of Chinese landscape painting which he so admired. Kiff would stay true to his particular vision throughout his life.
In 1991 he became the second of the National Gallery’s invited ‘Associated Artists’, succeeding Paula Rego and preceding Peter Blake. This new scheme offered artists a studio in the gallery for two years, and the opportunity to make new work surrounded by, and possibly inspired by, the Old Masters. Throughout his career he was fascinated by the printmaking process, producing editions of etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, as well as monotypes. The encounter with the American printmaker Garner Tullis, with whom he first worked in 1988, led to a new body of work using coloured encaustic both for his paintings and for his monotypes.
In 1991 he was elected a Royal Academician, and the work from his residency at the National Gallery was exhibited there in 1993, and his drawings and prints at the Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield in the following year. Further exhibitions were held at the Mead Gallery, University of Warwick (1997), Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (1999), and the White Gallery, Brighton (2002, a print retrospective).