PRINT April 2001


Groovy Bob

AT FIRST GLANCE this book is but one more irritating example of a cut-and-paste interview “biography,” in which the contributors do most of the work and the “author” gets the credit. Pick a figure within living memory (George Plimpton’s Truman Capote is representative); jet around the world recording the recollections of the subject’s family, friends, colleagues, and enemies; get them to react to other versions of events (preferably contradictorily); cut it all up to form a roughly chronological narrative; add pictures; publish. Few facts, no interpretation; often muddled, often repetitive. But as you read this increasingly engrossing picture of the short life of Robert Fraser, a trendsetting English gallerist of the ’60s, the method gradually pays off. It has great immediacy and, for a figure by no means a heavyweight, is probably preferable to solemn biographical treatment.

Harriet Vyner, who offers her own memories of Fraser in his last years, sought out interesting people to interview but has perhaps been a tad lazy. First, she missed some obvious contributors: Art writer David Sylvester, Boogie-Woogie author Daniel Moynihan, and dealer Anthony d’Offay all knew Fraser well at one time or another but are conspicuously absent. Second, she failed to supply the help needed by a reader plunging for the first time into this turbulent pool of English social life in the ’60s. At the least, she might have provided brief biographies of the lesser-knowns she interviewed: Though Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and Jim Dine don’t really need blurbs, others could have stood more="./ntification than the few parenthetical words appended to their names in the index—“art dealer,” “friend of RF,” or, my favorites, “RF’s arresting officer” and “Ugandan servant.”

The Robert Fraser Gallery, which opened in London in 1962, rapidly became a hotbed of change in the mostly stuffy art world of the time. It introduced unfamiliar European artists and new-generation British and American ones (including Dine, Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley, Ellsworth Kelly, and Patrick Caulfield). It was a must-see place in a London finally beginning to de-provincialize and cast off some of its postwar austerity. It was the world of David Bailey’s photographs and Antonioni’s Blow-Up, of the Mick Jagger set (more groovy than that of the Beatles, though McCartney is an excellent interviewee), of Op and Pop and new fashions paraded by leggy Chelsea models and reedy men in tight velvet flares. Eventually came pot, coke, and self-finding tours to India. We think we know all this history, but here, picked over by its graying makers (those, that is, who survived), the book provides valuable testimony.

Fraser himself came from a recently rich family (John Richardson: “You could see that he was a butler’s grandson”) that lived in patrician style. He was tall, gangly, good-looking in a not very sexy way; he mixed Establishment Savile Row suits with ’60s casual American (everyone remembers his dressiness); he could be snobbish and very funny, imperious and completely “where it’s at.” He picked artists well on the whole, chose friends promiscuously, mixing the old guard and the new like cut and wild flowers, and enjoyed nothing more, it seems, than being buggered on all fours by large black men. He doesn’t appear to have fallen in love, although there were various attachments and some sustaining friendships, above all with Christopher Gibbs (“dealer and connoisseur”), a vivid contributor throughout.

Like Fraser himself, his gallery was short-lived: It closed in 1969 and made an unhappy comeback in the early ’80s. By all accounts Fraser was financially hopeless (a reaction, perhaps, to his father, Sir Lionel Fraser, a heavy hitter in city banking who initially backed his son) and unscrupulous in his payments to artists. Like many good dealers, he had his lame ducks too; and later on, again like many good dealers, his intuitive taste deserted him. He opened his second gallery with a show of the less-than-scintillating stained-glass designer Brian Clarke, having been to New York and found the “galleries and SoHo all boring and nothing as exciting as the sixties.”

The later pages recount Fraser’s promiscuity, binge drinking, and drug taking: He was famously arrested with Mick Jagger and imprisoned in 1967, the occasion for Hamilton’s well-known image of Fraser and Jagger in handcuffs. Fraser’s terminal decline from AIDS, which took place in the London flat of his mother, is remembered here in horrible detail. A pioneer in this field too, he was apparently the first person in England to die at home from AIDS. He was forty-nine.

Is Fraser worth this 300-page book? The answer has to be yes, not so much for his personal achievement, which was relatively minor, but for his representativeness of the lifestyle of a social stratum that in the later ’60s and through the ’70s infiltrated Britain—for good or ill—far beyond the upholstered Mayfair and dropout Morocco of Fraser’s immediate world. In addition to offering a memorable portrait that is frank, infuriating, and sometimes very funny, the book fleshes out Hamilton’s classic image of his dealer, a hero-victim of a society he helped transform.

Richard Shone is associate editor of The Burlington Magazine.


Harriet Vyner, Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser.
New York: Faber and Faber, 2001. 336 pages.