Harriet Vyner takes a look back the chequered life of Groovy Bob — Robert Fraser —an Eton-educated former soldier described as "one of the most influential people of the London 60s scene" by Paul McCartney.
When Mick Jagger first met gallery owner Robert Fraser in the early 1960s, Fraser seemed to represent the London of a decade earlier. An old Etonian, he was formal, well groomed and ready to pass on his art knowledge to these brash young pop stars on the scene.
A few years later, Fraser and Jagger were handcuffed together and on their way to prison. The moment was captured by Richard Hamilton in his iconic Swingeing London 67. Both the title — a reference to the swingeing sentence Judge Block deemed necessary — and the subject itself, encapsulated the peculiar mood of that era. London may have started to swing but not everyone wanted it that way.
Open from 1962 until 1969, The Robert Fraser Gallery at 69 Duke Street, was the city’s most exciting contemporary art gallery. Fraser was in sole charge and his taste was impeccable and unpredictable. He introduced to London such artists as Peter Blake and Andy Warhol and his opening parties were famously glamorous.
He would screen the latest Kenneth Anger and Bruce Conner art films and his catalogues would have a profound influence on future graphic design. Friends with the Beatles, he somewhat arrogantly insisted they use the team of Peter Blake and his artist wife Jann Haworth for their Sergeant Pepper cover, over their original choice of artist.
It was hardly surprising that Time Magazine featured the gallery so prominently as the place to be in their famous 1966 cover story on swinging London. Thanks to such as Fraser, not only did the city have its venerable history but suddenly too, a stimulating contemporary scene.
Not everyone was delighted at the changing times. To some of the old guard, the gallery seemed a symbol of some small disturbing ripple of change spreading through the city. In May, Jim Dine's London 66 show outraged a Detective Sergeant Beale and the offending works were seized. The first the American artist heard about the whole affair was the telegram "REGINA VERSUS VAGINA. LOVE ROBERT."
The gallery was fined 20 guineas under the 1838 vagrancy act, which prevented soldiers returning from Napoleonic campaigns displaying their wounds for alms.
There were other troubles looming. By the time he was arrested with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the 1967 Redland bust, Fraser was a heroin addict and was sentenced to six months for possession. Despite the druggy lifestyle that had impacted on them financially, his long suffering artists stuck by him, and worked together to put on two shows during his absence.
After his release, the gallery continued to create a stir — presenting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s You Are Here show and Gilbert and George's first foray into a West End gallery.
After its closure and some years of travel, Fraser reopened the gallery Cork Street in 1983, introducing such dazzling artists as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He died in 1986, of AIDS; an early British casualty.
What would Fraser make of London's current art scene? He'd be thrilled by its diversity but bored by the huge commercial stakes involved. Certainly he'd be unable to take consistent advantage of its profits.
However, if some contemporary galleries might provide more financial stability, very few modern dealers fascinate their artists in the way that Fraser did. He featured more than any other dealer in the works of the artists he represented.
Mercurial, as Claes Oldenburg described him, he veered from old Etonian haughtiness to the hip stoned lingo of the swinging times. Occasionally alarming, often infuriating but always inspiring to his artists and friends alike. Groovy Bob, indeed.
Harriet Vyner's classic biography of Fraser, Groovy Bob, is republished on 12 May, with a new afterword. You can buy a copy here.