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Brian McElney obituary (B1 1946-50)

Brian Shane McElney OBE, who died on Wednesday 26 April 2023 at the age of 90, was a solicitor who spent his entire legal career working with the firm Johnson Stokes and Master in Hong Kong of which he became senior partner.  However, his greatest achievement was the establishment of The Museum of East Asian Art in Bath. A lifelong collector, concentrating on Oriental art, McElney built up an extraordinary collection during his years in Hong Kong and on his many foreign trips, the majority of which forms the museum’s collection.  Based in a restored Georgian building, it is the only museum of its kind in the UK and has become an acknowledged centre of expertise in art from China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia.

Brian Shane McElney was born on July 10th 1932 in Hong Kong to a family of doctors: both parents, John “Jack” Harold McElney and Ariel Ransford Stewart Deacon, practised medicine and moved to the Far East shortly after they married, having met back in the UK. A younger brother, Desmond, arrived just over a year later, but tragedy struck and Ariel died in October 1933, aged just 29, due to complications following blood poisoning.

Brian’s Aunt Mary accompanied the family back to Hong Kong and after a couple of years it was decided that Brian and Desmond would benefit from an education in the UK. Based first with their maternal grandmother in Liverpool and the Lake District, both attended Holmwood prep school followed by Marlborough College, now based with Aunt Mary, their legal guardian, during the holidays. Brian studied classics and ancient history, both of which became lifelong interests, and it was also at Marlborough that an inspirational teacher, Louis Ferrand Audemars, introduced Brian to some of the world’s greatest artworks and instilled in him an understanding of fine art. During the holidays the boys would travel, often independently, pre-figuring a globe-trotting lifestyle that would last throughout Brian’s life.

It was decided that Brian would pursue a career in the law and after serving articles for five years with Blyth Dutton Wright & Bennett in the City of London, he qualified as a solicitor in 1956. It was also in London that he started collecting, purchasing a gilt bronze Tibetan Buddha for £26 in 1955 which ended up in the Museum. He accepted a job at Johnson Stokes & Master in Hong Kong, having felt he would always return to his place of birth, and stayed briefly with his father, Jack. It was a time of considerable upheaval in Hong Kong as what had been one of the world’s sleepy backwaters began to turn into a major global destination, with constant ructions on the border due to tensions with China. Brian prospered, rising swiftly up the ranks of the firm and quickly established a habit that he pursued during his entire tenure in Hong Kong, browsing the antique shops of Hollywood Road and Cat Street. The following decades were also marked by periods of extensive travel, including many trips to Victoria, British Columbia, where Jack had settled with his second wife Madge in late 1958. Jack ultimately passed away in April 1985.

Brian became embroiled in the complexities of Chinese legal struggles, including the concept of “face” and the unique problems associated with concubinage, along with some of the major cases of the day. In 2017 he published his autobiography called, Collecting China: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Art Addict. As well as including details of his life as a collector and his trials and tribulations of founding the museum, this also provides insight as to why Hong Kong developed into an international banking centre.

McElney became Senior Partner at JSM in 1971, a position he held for 12 years, and in 1973 was elected President of the Hong Kong Law Society, one of a number of prestigious appointments he held both in the fields of law and collecting. During his time as president, many foreign law firms started to set up branches in Hong Kong to service their banking clients. These were cautiously welcomed as Brian recognised their importance in Hong Kong’s future development of the sector.

In 1982 Brian suffered a stroke, which left him blind in one eye, upon which he stepped down as Senior Partner at JSM, although after a period of convalescence he continued to work as a part time consultant for the firm for the best part of the next decade. During this period, as a member of the Hong Kong Law Reform Commission, he chaired a sub-committee which recommended a unified code of laws to cover Wills and Intestate estates of all Hong Kong residents. This meant that equal rights were given to men and women, Chinese and Europeans and those of mixed race. The unifying Ordinances were enacted just before 1997.

By this time his collection, compiled over many years and many miles travelled, numbered 2,000 objects dating from 5000BC to the present day. They included Chinese artefacts, Tibetan art, Fujian export ceramics, bamboo carvings, decorative arts and Chinese twentieth century water colours. It was at this point that the idea took place, first to donate it to an existing Museum and then to make it the basis of a Museum in its own right, not only to preserve the substantial and wide-ranging collection, but also to allow future generations to see it.

Brian relocated to Bath in the UK in May 1992, where he began to ship the collection from various areas of the world – Hong Kong and also the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where a lot of it had been on loan, sent there for safekeeping during the riots in Hong Kong in the 1960s. He left a significant collection of twentieth century Chinese water colour paintings, by 350 different Chinese artists whom he considered worth collecting, in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.  These, along with other artefacts, were donated in tranches to the Gallery over an extended period of time.

He had previously bought a Georgian building as an investment in Bath and planning permission was given for it to be converted into a Museum. The Museum was set up as an educational charity and opened its doors to the public in April 1993.

In the course of time, the remainder of Brian’s collection and the building became invested in the Museum. McElney himself, now an acclaimed expert in the field, who had contributed widely to journals across the world on the subject of Chinese art, did the research and much of the cataloguing himself. The Museum swiftly garnered acclaim from all quarters. In 1997, in recognition of his work, he was awarded an honorary MA by the University of Bath.  By 2015 the Museum’s endowment fund, started in 1995, had grown through donations from Brian’s interests, former clients and friends, and significant legacies, to a size sufficient to secure the long-term future of the Museum.

In 2003 Brian was awarded the OBE and settled in Bath, spending much time in the museum and guiding visitors around its treasures. He continued to travel extensively, as well as writing an historical novel entitled Romans on the Silk Road, published in 2019.  He is survived by his niece Susan and nephews Gerald and Mark, and five great nieces and nephews.