Obituary: Nigel Cameron, Hong Kong art critic and forthright advocate for a fledgling generation of artists

Known in his early career in Asia for books about China with photography by Brian Brake, Cameron once buttonholed Zhou Enlai, in French, to get a travel pass; in Hong Kong, he helped the art scene grow

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 10:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 10:08am

Nigel Cameron

14 March 1920 to 14 February 2017

Nigel Cameron, art critic for the South China Morning Post between 1972 and 1994, died peacefully at his home in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels this week at the age of 96.

Born in Edinburgh, Cameron first visited Asia with the British Royal Navy, and after studies and work as a dentist, he and his then partner, New Zealand photographer Brian Brake, decided to leave Britain in 1956 to travel around the world and collaborate on magazine assignments.

An early adventure was a trip to China in 1957. While in Beijing and having trouble getting permission to visit inland regions, Cameron heard that Zhou Enlai was hosting a reception at the Beijing Hotel and decided to gatecrash it. Striding up the hotel’s grand central staircase to the banqueting hall, he joined a queue of other guests and, upon meeting Zhou, greeted him in fluent French.

Surprised, fellow French speaker Zhou chatted with Cameron about his travel plans. Zhou wrote down an address for Cameron to collect a personally signed internal travel pass the following day. This pass allowed Brake and Cameron to travel around China and have unprecedented freedom to meet people and photograph. Their resulting book, To the East a Phoenix, was published in 1960.

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Hong Kong in the 1960s was the main reporting base for China-watchers and a layover spot for Vietnam war correspondents. It was an active military outpost alongside a vibrant, expanding economy and a growing centre for book publishing and printing. Cameron moved permanently to Hong Kong in 1962 and worked as an historian, art critic, curator, sometime art dealer and art exhibition organiser at a time when Hong Kong’s arts and cultural scene was small.

He organised countless exhibitions and, as an art critic and writer, helped the fledgling careers of Hong Kong’s first modernist artists, among them Hon Chi-fun, Wucius Wong, Luis Chan, Cheung Yee, Ha Bik-chuen, Douglas Bland, Rosamond Brown, Eddie Lui Fung-ngar, Tong King-sum, Irene Chou Lu-yun and Lui Chun-kwong.

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He was a fluid, erudite writer and his many publications included Peking: A Tale of Three Cities, with photographs by Brian Brake (1965); Barbarians and Mandarins – Thirteen Centuries of Western Travelers in China (1970); Hong Kong: The Cultured Pearl (1978) and An Illustrated History of Hong Kong (1991).

Cameron was made an honorary adviser to the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1965 and worked as an art adviser to Hongkong Land, organising many exhibitions of artists from around the world at Exchange Square’s Rotunda in the city’s Central business district.

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Cameron was an honest and forthright writer. In a 1997 essay about Hong Kong printer Ng Ching-wa, he discussed the dominance of Chinese landscape painting over the portrayal of more personal, interior scenes. Cameron prescient words are as true today as they were then: “Ng deals in a more intimate and meaningful way with ordinary life than any I can recall seeing in other Hong Kong contemporary artists, and amid the strident offerings of today’s art world, offers a small, precious and truthful insight denied to us by much other work.”

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For more than 40 years, Cameron was one of Hong Kong’s leading art critics and exhibition organisers. His intellectual, energetic, and enthusiastic support for art and Hong Kong’s then-fledgling artists had a significant influence on the development of the visual arts in the city. But, Cameron would no doubt agree, some things never change: the art world is still strident and there remains an excessive amount of interest in Chinese landscape painting.

John Batten is the president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong