Artist Rosamond Brown And Ben Brown Reflect On Hong Kong's Growing Art Scene
When Rosamond Brown moved to Hong Kong in 1964, she didn’t set out to become one the city’s most prominent art patrons. She slipped into the role as if it simply were the thing to do. That she was only 26, and a painter herself, was no matter.
“My husband Charles and I used to go to shows, which were mostly held in the New Territories, and purchase works we found interesting,” she recalls, speaking on the phone from London, where she currently spends part of her time. “We felt we ought to do our part in helping artists, all the more because I myself was one. But there was no grand plan behind it. We bought the pieces and hung them on the walls of our house.”
A few months after her arrival, Rosamond held a debut solo show at the Chatham Gallery, one of Hong Kong’s first commercial galleries. She presented a second one in 1966. She also began frequenting a now-closed cafe at City Hall, where local artists met regularly to exchange and discuss ideas. Here, she became acquainted with fellow painters Hon Chi-fun, Gaylord Chan and Cheung Yee, for whom she used to order acrylic paint, which at the time could only be shipped from America, in exchange for lessons on how to use a Chinese brush.
“I felt incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such great minds,” she says. “They stimulated me both personally and professionally.”
Exploring Hong Kong's Art Scene
Soon after she arrived in Hong Kong, Rosamond’s own art—mostly large, meditative landscapes that were partly inspired by western abstract expressionism and colour theory—started showing some of the techniques used by her peers, from elements of Zen to calligraphic precision. Hong Kong, too, became a key source of inspiration. “The scenery, the mountains, the mist, the city itself—it all influenced me enormously, as did China,” she says.
These places guided much of her ensuing career, as she went on to show at the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s inaugural exhibition in 1977 and, one year later, at the British Embassy in Beijing, in the first show of contemporary western art in post-Cultural Revolution China. From then on, she played a key role in the development of the arts scene in Hong Kong.
“Over the decades, I’ve seen the art sector coming into its own, but also struggling with a number of challenges,” she says. “Hong Kong has always been a hard place for artists. The spaces to work are small, the rents prohibitive. Nonetheless, art makers have continued to produce great works.” And she’s continued to support them, both by collecting and making her house at 5 Pollock’s Path on The Peak—which she sold last year after having lived there for over 50 years—a gathering ground for the creative crowd, among them artists, journalists and architects (Charles, Rosamond’s late husband, was an architect).
Inspiring The Next Generation
Unsurprisingly, this milieu sparked an interest in the arts in their son, Ben, who today is a major gallerist and art dealer and, like his mother, splits his time between London and Hong Kong. “Growing up, I distinctly remember the feeling of our house being somewhat different from those of other kids in Hong Kong,” he says. “Art was everywhere. Paintings filled every room. My mother spent hours in her studio working, and summers taking us around museums in Europe. She had a deep appreciation for any kind of virtuosity—drawings, sculptures, watercolours, architecture. And she passed it on to me.”
Unlike Rosamond, Ben was never interested in pursuing a career as an artist. “For years my mother kept a sketch I did when I was maybe five years old. You could tell from it I just didn’t have the flair for it,” he laughs. Instead, he found himself drawn towards the “back end” of the art world. “When I was 16 or 17, I knew I wanted to work in the sector, but from a different angle than my mother,” he recalls. Nevertheless, Rosamond was thrilled.
“The mere fact he was inspired by art as much as his father and I were was very pleasing for us,” she says. Ben agrees both his parents were incredibly supportive.
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He took a year to do a history course in Rome and work in a gallery, then began filling his résumé with places like the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, where he had a two-month internship, and Sotheby’s and Christie’s during his time at Oxford University. Eventually, his experiences at the auction houses convinced him to join Sotheby’s in London, where he stayed for a decade and became director of the contemporary art department. In 2004, Ben opened his first gallery in the British capital, Ben Brown Fine Arts. Hong Kong followed five years later, when it became the first gallery to open in Pedder Building in Central. This year, he moved the gallery to a larger space in Wong Chuk Hang.
Returning to Hong Kong felt like a natural step. “Throughout my career, I tried to keep a finger on what was happening in Hong Kong,” says Ben. “I had wanted to bring western art to the city for a while, but had to wait for the right time, the right shift in perspectives and interest from the local market. I knew Hong Kong had the commercial potential it has shown over the last decade—especially since Art Basel launched.”
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Did Rosamond offer him any advice when it came to setting up back in Asia? “My mother has always and will always tell me what she thinks,” says Ben. “I think that’s the most valuable type of advice you could ask for. So yes, she’s always told me her opinion and offered her suggestions, from what artists to bring to what exhibitions to show. We don’t always agree—although we do tend to have similar tastes—but I respect her views.”
It goes both ways: Rosamond the artist often seeks Ben the art dealer’s insights when it comes to expanding the family’s home art collection, be it with a Damien Hirst piece or a Sean Scully painting. “It’s a dialogue,” she explains, “and we do agree on more things than we disagree on.”
Like promoting the arts. In 2014, the Brown family set up one of Hong Kong’s only museum acquisition funds, the Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, providing HK$5 million to buy contemporary works at Art Basel for the M+ collection until 2024. Conceived by Ben and donated by Rosamond, “it’s a way to give back to a city that’s given us so much,” says Ben. It’s also a tribute to Charles Brown, who died in 2012 and, alongside Rosamond, played a major part in fostering Hong Kong’s artistic community.
Rosamond is actively involved in the fund, consulting on purchasing decisions and helping the museum’s directors and curators find what they need to build its collection. “It’s been a delightful and fun experience so far,” she says. “I am actually surprised there haven’t been more people in Hong Kong who have donated.”
“Hong Kong has been lacking an institutional, unbiased cultural venue for too long,” adds Ben. “The only places where people can go to see great art right now are galleries, which are commercial spaces. That’s patently wrong. M+ is going to change that, so we felt it was essential to support it.”
Meanwhile, at Ben Brown Fine Arts, some of the “great art” Ben mentioned is now Rosamond’s. At the 2019 edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, Ben showed six semi-abstract landscapes by his mother, painted in the 1980s, spurred partly by a recommendation by the fair director’s Adeline Ooi, who suggested Rosamond would be a compelling example of an accomplished Hong Kong female artist. Then, from May to October this year, Ben exhibited 14 of his mother’s watercolours in a pop-up exhibition at the Hong Kong Club.
“I never thought I would show at Ben’s gallery, since it’s such an international name and I am a Hong Kong artist,” says Rosamond. “But then again, why not?”
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