Bruce Chatwin, 48, a popular and critically acclaimed British travel writer and novelist, died Jan. 17 in a hospital in Nice, France. He had a rare bone marrow disease, caused by a fungus, he had contracted while traveling in China. Mr. Chatwin's first book, "In Patagonia," was published in 1977 and grew out of a lonely six-month trek he made through the desolate southern third of Argentina and Chile. The travel book combines conventional travel information with musings concerning local legends and earlier peoples. It also tells the story of a people through such tools as a review of local telephone books. Like all his travel books, it focuses on people and their stories. That book, which included tales of mad missionaries, shipwrecked sailors and legendary outlaws, won immediate critical acclaim. It garnered its author the prestigious Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster literary awards. Mr. Chatwin's second book, "The Viceroy of Ouidah," published in this country in 1980, is a novel. It is based on the true adventures of a Brazilian slave trader in West Africa in the early 1800s. His second novel, "On Black Hill," concerns two brothers living on a farm along the English-Welsh border. His third novel, "Utz," published this month, looks at the life of a former Czech aristocrat who shares a tiny Prague apartment with a valuable art collection. Another travel book, "Songlines," published in 1987, is a study of Australia and its aborigines. It examines the nature and history of nomads and the creation of legends of the aboriginal peoples. His final book, a collection of writings called "What Am I Doing Here?", is to be published by Viking this year. Mr. Chatwin was born the son of a Royal Navy officer. He briefly studied architecture and tried to find work as an actor before joining the legendary Sotheby's fine arts auctioneering concern as a porter in 1958. During the next seven years, he became a director of the firm, chief of its impressionists department, and was offered a partnership. Growing restive with the art world, he abruptly quit Sotheby's in 1965 to study archeology at Edinburgh University. In 1973, he joined the magazine staff of the Sunday Times of London. It was for that publication that he originally traveled to Patagonia. He quit the paper while still doing research in South America. The remainder of his life was devoted to wandering, watching and writing. He eventually traveled to some of the more remote quarters of Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. His life became something of a modern equivalent of that lived in earlier days by such other noted British writers and travelers as Richard Burton and T.E. Lawrence. Along the way, Mr. Chatwin gained an enviable reputation as a superb storyteller and literary craftsman. With such other writers as Jan Morris, Jonathan Raban and Paul Theroux, he helped revitalize the travel writing genre as a noted reporting art. Survivors include his wife, the former Elizabeth Chanler, whom he married in 1965, of the south of France.