A. Victor Coverley-Price, 1901-1988

Here is an artist of many parts: highly educated, well-connected, precocious and adventurous, Coverley-Price was a man for whom, in the end, only his painting - and climbing mountains - offered a sufficient challenge and fulfilment.

As a school-boy, Coverley-Price won a prize for his painting at Harrow and he embarked upon his career as an exhibiting artist even when he was still at University, studying Modern Languages. Clearly, he had a natural gift and was, essentially, self-taught; that does not mean, however, that he was unambitious or amateurish. From his youth, he travelled widely and sketched continuously, drawing and painting the people, streets and landscapes he visited, and studying in museums and galleries.

Coverley-Price joined the Diplomatic Service in 1925. For the next twenty years, he travelled extensively, to various parts of Europe and much further afield, to Nepal, South America, Japan, the Middle East, South Africa and North America. His diplomatic tours were supplemented with adventurous holidays - especially good if they entailed a hard climb. In 1932, he took six months’ leave, to act as interpreter to a Royal Geographical Society expedition to the Peruvian Andes. The expedition was led by geologist, writer and explorer, Professor John W. Gregory, who had already carved an impressive career, starting at the Natural History Museum, embarking on travels to the West Indies, North America, East Africa, and publishing books on subjects which ranged from the Great Rift Valley to glacial geology. Gregory went on to occupy chairs in Geology in the University of Melbourne, Australia, and then in Glasgow and, in January 1932, he embarked on his expedition to South America, to study the volcanic and earthquake centres of the Andes. This was the expedition Coverley-Price joined. Six months into the journey, Gregory was drowned in the fierce Urubamba River. His specimens and papers - like the sketches belonging to Coverley-Price, who nearly lost his life - had been securely wrapped and survived.

‘I laid out all my sketches in the afternoon sunshine, for most of them were very damp. My clothes dried slowly on me: all my kit had been lost.’[1]

It seems that this tragic experience did not deter Coverley-Price. In 1943, he was painting watercolours of Mount Kilimanjaro, specifying the time and place very precisely - Dawn, 12,000 ft - evidence, indeed, that his sketch-books accompanied him everywhere. Again, in two small watercolours, painted in the winter of 1943/4, he portrayed the Mausoleum of Sultan Barquq and Cairo and Pyramid, conveying something of their monumental character, powerful in the bleached light of Egypt. Coverley-Price’s watercolours were, sometimes, sketches for an oil painting, but, in both media, he was focused on capturing and conveying something - an essence - of the particular place in particular light.

In 1946, Coverley-Price retired from the Diplomatic Service to concentrate on travelling, writing and painting. His first book, an autobiography, An Artist Among Mountains - including 33 illustrations taken from his own drawings - was published in 1957. This was followed by many books: The Sherpas of Nepal appeared in 1959. The artist worked on this with Jennifer Bourdillon, wife of Tom, who, with his father, Robert Bourdillon, was an experienced climber and had come within 300 feet of the summit of Everest, three days before Hillary and Tenzing reached the top, in 1953. Three years later – just as Jennifer Bourdillon’s first book, Visit to the Sherpas, was published – Tom died on the Jägihorn, in Switzerland.

It is clear that Coverley-Price had a real taste for the danger of climbing and travelling and did not hesitate to pursue his passion for the wilder reaches of the world. His later illustrated books (a number of which were for children) include, The Hill People of North-East India, (1959); The Amazon, (1960); A Banana Plantation in Guatemala (1961); A Coffee Plantation in Brazil (1961); and A Japanese Village, (1961). He also wrote and produced a prodigious number of illustrations for the contemporary journal, The Sphere (which ran from 1900 until 1964). This was intended not only to present general news, but also to appeal to Britons living overseas. Amongst other artists whose work was included were Victorian illustrators, Sidney Paget and Ernest Prater, and, in later years, Claude Grahame Muncaster, who was of the same generation as Coverley-Price and shared a love of sketching and painting as he travelled.

In 1965, Coverley-Price moved to Cirencester. This may seem to have been a rather tame place to retire, but the artist continued to revel in travel - increasingly round the landscape and coast of Britain and gradually concentrating, as he grew older, on the Picturesque corners of the Cotswolds. His experience of many and varied qualities of light and atmosphere seems to have lent him a remarkable sensitivity to such effects: his English pictures, both watercolours and oil, are often so fresh and vivid, and executed with so swift and subtle a brush, that they convey a real taste of the artist’s exhilaration and pleasure in the scene before him.

‘A slight sketch or a highly finished picture: with neither can (the artist) capture the whole truth of the magic moment. It must suffice to put down enough to remind him of the scene that he has chosen and to recall his own feelings at the moment when it gripped him.’[2]

Coverley-Price’s work was widely exhibited - in Ottawa, Mexico City, as well as London, where he showed at the Royal Academy, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, the United Society of Artists and at commercial galleries, including the Fine Art Society and The Alpine Club. The sparkling, evocative, energetic charm of his pictures - which speaks much of the artist as well as of his subjects - is now commanding the attention of a new generation of admirers.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] Quoted from Coverley-Price’s autobiography, An Artist among Mountains, 1957, p.190.

[2] Coverley-Price, Op.cit., p.224.