Portrait of Robert ‘Groovy Bob’ Fraser

Robert Fraser, the man known as ‘Groovy Bob’, emerged as a pivotal figure of the London art scene in the 1960s – and in commissioning the artwork of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he epitomised a wild and freewheeling era. Reviving his Cork Street gallery in the 80s, Fraser was arguably the first star gallerist, a subject of awe and fascination for many of his talent. Text by Harriet Vyner.

“The London art gallery that has most come to symbolise the zest of the sixties has been Robert Fraser’s, so it is not surprising that the reopening of the Robert Fraser Gallery after a decade, this time at 21 Cork Street, W1, is welcomed by art dudes old and new as the most energising event of the year. Brian Clarke is the most sixties character to have emerged in the London art world since the sixties and appropriately, he is the artist honoured with the inaugural show.” John McEwen, The Spectator, 1983.

Portrait of Robert Fraser. Photographer unknown

Considering it was over 30 years ago and that my memories of those times are indistinct at best, it is testament to the glamour of the occasion that I can remember every moment of this inaugural show’s private view.

June 15th, 1983 was a Wednesday. There had been so much hype in the press about Robert’s return to the art world that I wondered what to expect from the evening ahead. Brian and Robert were both friends of mine but I had rarely heard plans being discussed. In one interview, Robert had said that he was choosing to open in London, as opposed to the more obvious New York, because he wanted to be part of a future that he thought London could have. I knew Brian’s works were not only a powerful testament to the punk energy that had energised London a few years earlier but also, with their mix of anarchy and intellectual rigour, a perfect expression of this optimism.

From Burlington Gardens, I heard the hum of distant chatter. Turning into Cork Street, I saw that there was already a large crowd milling in the street. The gallery was packed but I pushed my way in and saw Robert looking delighted by the buzz. Translating enthusiasm into sales wasn’t always his strong point but in this case, every painting in the show was sold by the end of the first week.

Alain Jacquet. Camouflage Republique, 1963. Plaster bust with acrylic.

Outside, in Cork Street, a television crew were balanced so precariously on some scaffolding that the police had arrived to get them down, effectively closing down the street. Some of the guests disappeared momentarily during this police visit only to reappear in full swing, once it was clear that it wasn’t any kind of legal crackdown.

Throughout the evening, the free floating and somewhat hysterical anticipation of a Gatsby party grew – what would this evening lead to? Was it the start of an exciting future or a rerun of the mythical past? Both, it seemed.

The first Robert Fraser Gallery, at 69 Duke Street, was open from 1962 until 1969. During that time, it introduced groundbreaking English, European and American artists, many of whom are now household names. In his twenties, Robert had the nerve to trust his instincts – and he was right to. He used the most innovative graphic designers for his catalogues. He persuaded The Beatles to use Peter Blake and Jann Haworth to create the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over their preferred choice. He screened the films of American artists Bruce Conner and Kenneth Anger. The unknown artists Gilbert & George exhibited their works in a vitrine. He removed the gallery window in order to exhibit Tara Browne’s psychedelic Cobra sports car for a week.

Things didn’t always run smoothly. In 1964, he persuaded Richard Hamilton to come aboard by telling him that if he gave up teaching, he would make sure to match his income. The first cheque bounced. Not ideal, as Hamilton put it. But surely, still worth it to be part of, as he wrote in 1985, ‘the best gallery in post-war London.’

Robert was one of the movers and shakers of the suddenly swinging city. However, as the decade progressed, he became less reliable and more enigmatic still. Throughout, he maintained an old Etonian hauteur, whilst embracing the lingo that gave rise to his ironic nickname Groovy Bob. Many of his artists found it baffling to be in his presence but they were fascinated, too. Never has an art dealer been the subject of so many of his artist’s paintings. The gallery became a byword for glamour. The establishment began to feel it needed watching. In June 1966, Jim Dine’s exhibition was seized, its objectionable subject matter having been spotted through the window by the eagle-eyed Detective Sergeant Beale. Despite much support from the art world, the works were ruled indecent and the gallery fined twenty guineas under the 1838 vagrancy laws.

Clive Barker. Robert Fraser Prison Letter, 1971. Silkscreen print. Letter from Prison (7854 Fraser 1969), 1969. Oil on canvas.

A year later, Robert was arrested at Keith Richards’ house and sentenced to six months in prison for possession of heroin. The trial and sentence inspired Richard Hamilton’s iconic Swingeing London 67 series – a protest at judicial overkill and one of the images that most defines the decade.

Despite its less serious consequences, Robert considered the Jim Dine prosecution to be more dispiriting than his drugs arrest. He couldn’t help but be ashamed of the prudish philistinism of his own country; ashamed to be English when up until that point he had revelled in it. It meant that his heart was no longer fully in the running of the gallery, even after he had freed himself from the heroin addiction that had played such havoc with his already negligible financial abilities.

Before its closure, he presented the 1968 John Lennon, You Are Here happening, at which John and Yoko released balloons from the closed off Duke Street, with notes attached asking those who found them to write back. This being England, many of the responses were abusive and this being Robert, when a great pile of the letters were discovered in his flat in 1982, the whole lot went in the bin. He was as dismissive of his own cultural history as he was of paperwork.

Would the new Cork Street gallery be the centre of a similar cultural revolution? Despite the expectations generated by the opening party, the atmosphere in 1980’s England was a far cry from that of the swinging sixties. However, at first, the optimism seemed justified as Robert continued to set the scene. He introduced artists from the French Figuration Libre movement, such as Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa, and their graffiti counterparts from America, including Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. He combined both movements in the 1984 Paris/NY show and before that, the stylish Black and White show, which was, as art critic Robin Dutt put it, a study in robotic tribalism. Artists from the Duke Street days were still loyal and in November 1983, he presented an exhibition of works from some of the now most famous names in British Pop Art. As his solo show drew nearer, Keith Haring and his gang would often be in the gallery, with Tony Shafrazi and Robert Mapplethorpe. As Haring knelt on the floor, music blaring, spray-painting another work, Shafrazi would be asking where the action was – what’s exciting and new in London? I couldn’t answer. It seemed that only here was.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1983. Oil on panel.

Robin Dutt remembers this same 1983 Haring opening with its breakdancers and giant stereos playing at full volume. Energised by this hip event, he stepped outside only to notice the gallery opposite exhibiting eighteenth century sporting prints. It was a dead time for contemporary art. Furthermore, what few modern art buyers there were, would often be baffled as much by Robert himself as by the works he was showing. His lack of any sort of persuasive effort was maddening.

And his radicalism didn’t satisfy everyone. In May 1985 the Grey Organisation, deciding that Cork Street represented all that was stale in art, threw paint over the windows of the Robert Fraser Gallery, among others. Robert was ill by then but he was fairly dismissive of this action. He would have been stimulated by a more imaginative protest, even if that had been still more inconvenient to put right.

He was tired. Asked by Mike Von Joel what advice he would give someone opening a gallery, his answer was that they would have to be mad. Much of the time, he was being pursued by creditors and there began to be the sense that his not giving a damn indicated disenchantment rather than high-handedness. Always bored by the business side of things, in this case the palpable apathy had as much to do with his failing health as the financial constructs of the art world. Without directly confronting his fears, he suspected that he was suffering from the new, so called ‘gay plague’. Really, how could he not be? On his trips to New York, he had been an enthusiast for the clubs that were a byword for orgiastic excess – the Toilet, the Anvil. In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS. The gallery closed soon after and Robert died at his mother’s house a year later. In 2014, Brian [Clarke] asked me to help him curate an exhibition to be held at Pace London in Burlington Gardens. He and Pace director Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst had decided that a celebration of Robert’s contribution to the art world was timely. Others in the art world obviously agreed: Claes Oldenburg allowed some of his delicate soft sculptures to be shipped over for it, a rare Andy Warhol photobooth self portrait was loaned, as was the original Sgt. Pepper drum. In one corner, Iain Macmillan’s 1965 photograph was reproduced as closely as possible with Robert’s Zeev Aram desk and Jann Haworth’s Cowboy lounging against one wall. There were works from 21 Cork Street too – Keith Haring’s spray painted doors, paintings from Brian and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Clive Barker’s sculpture of Van Gogh’s Chair from British Pop art. This work was of particular importance to Brian – first appearing in Barker’s 1968 solo show. It had been the first of Robert’s shows Brian had visited when an art student and it had mesmerised him.

Derek Boshier. Sam Spade, 1966. Oil on canvas.

In 1995, I’d started researching Robert’s biography Groovy Bob. As well as interviewing Robert’s circle of friends and family, I had been engrossed by the memorabilia saved by Brian and his team when they’d cleared out Robert’s haphazard belongings. There were badges, catalogues and photographs of the times and many letters from artists and curators who chatted about events of the day and, in apologetic, chatty or stronger terms, ended by asking him for money owed. Chatty letters were sent back and usually added as an afterthought, that this was a mere oversight and the money was on its way. A selection of these letters and photographs, in a vitrine along one wall, illustrated Robert’s infuriating ways and his part in England’s cultural history of the twentieth century.

The exhibition opened in February 2015. It was called A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense, a quote from Richard Hamilton’s collage tribute to Robert. Two other variations of his Swingeing London 67 were present, along with other portraits – Larry Rivers’ 1966 OK Robert OK Negro and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s giant ROB’T FRAZER, 1984.

Neon sign. A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense. 6 February – 28 March, 2015, Pace London

In Pace’s second floor space was to be another exhibition – Brian Clarke: works 1977-85, celebrating the short but exciting time in which Robert was Brian’s gallerist and the groove was at 21 Cork Street. People often suggest that if Robert were to open a gallery these days, it would be in the modish Bermondsey or Hoxton. But I think, with his love for Mayfair, Cork Street would still have more of a pull. Perfect for gossipy Cecconi lunches with his friend James Mayor and within walking distance of the equally attractive bars and clubs of Soho.

London’s contemporary art world nowadays is innovative and lucrative. I imagine that Robert would still discover artists whose work startled at first viewing. I suspect his boredom at questions from potential art investors would continue, despite, these days, their eagerness to be persuaded. In fact, I like to think that a visit to a twenty-first century Robert Fraser Gallery would be as baffling and out of this world as it ever had been. I feel sure that it would be.