Irwin was born in Hampshire but spent much of his childhood in Trebetherick, North Cornwall. He studied at London’s Goldsmiths College of Art and at Central School of Art & Design during the 1950s, going on to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1964. In the 60s, as Pop Art sidelined many of his contemporaries, Irwin became a tutor at Hornsey School of Art and Chelsea School of Art then became Head of Fine Art at Brighton Polytechnic in 1969, a position he held to 1984.
From 1987 onwards, a retrospective and his inclusion in two major surveys, at the Barbican (1993) and Tate Britain (2004), meant the artist’s work returned to prominence but, by this time, Irwin was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's disease. He died in 2008 in his family's old house at Trebetherick which had since been converted into a nursing home.
Photograph courtesy The Redfern Gallery