The Swinging Sixties’ Grooviest Art Dealer: In London, Remembering Robert Fraser

by Edward M. Gómez

LONDON — Looking back at history, one encounters certain individuals who reflect the changing attitudes, social values, or cultural trends of their times, while certain others seem to define and embody them; they’re the ones who become the symbols of the spirit of an age.
The art dealer Robert Fraser (1937–1986) became one such emblem of a particular place at a memorably effervescent moment; his was “Swinging London” of the 1960s, with its explosion of sexy-goofy fashion, its soundtrack of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and its unabashedly open expressions of sexuality. Swinging, grooving, and fueled by pot and pills, London in the sixties was a post-imperial pop-culture hub whose tradition-busting, style-setting forces Fraser played a large role in setting in motion.
Known as Britain’s main purveyor of Pop Art in both its home-grown and imported, American varieties, his Robert Fraser Gallery became London’s — and Europe’s — unrivaled, hip-art emporium. Around Fraser and his exhibitions orbited a vast cast of friends, admirers and associates, including, among others, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, and Paul and Linda McCartney; Francis Bacon, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat; the British Pop artists Peter Blake, Jann Haworth, Clive Barker, Richard Hamilton, and Eduardo Paolozzi; and many forward-looking collectors. A master at assembling exhibitions, Fraser was irresponsible when it came to running his gallery and routinely neglected to pay his artists. Often he was drunk or drugged-up, but still he managed to function. As Dine once observed, “Robert knew everyone in the world at one point.”
Now, Pace London, a branch of New York’s Pace Gallery, is presenting A Strong, Sweet Smell of Incense (through April 1), an exhibition that pays homage to Fraser and the spirit of the gallery that bore his name during two separate periods. The first lasted from 1962 to 1969, when it was located at 69 Duke Street, near Grosvenor Square. Its second incarnation lasted from 1983 to 1985 at 21 Cork Street, near the Royal Academy of Arts. It closed after Fraser’s AIDS-related death at a time when the disease was still new.
The exhibition has been curated by Harriet Vyner, a younger friend of Fraser’s, who wrote his biography, Groovy Bob (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), and by the British artist Brian Clarke, who showed his work at Fraser’s gallery and was the dealer’s close friend. Clarke, whose works have included abstract paintings affixed or embedded with neatly cut wooden squares or crosses, might be best known in the US for the reproduction of one of his tableaux that appeared on the cover of Paul McCartney’s 1982 solo album, Tug of War. (An exhibition of Clarke’s works from 1977 through 1985 is being shown concurrently at Pace London; nearby, at its annex, his new paintings and stained-glass works are on view.)
A Strong, Sweet Smell of Incense takes its title from a newspaper headline about a famous drug bust at Keith Richards’s house in February 1967, during which the police reportedly found the Rolling Stones guitarist and his guests, including Fraser, Jagger, and others, indulging in illicit substances — and a naked Marianne Faithfull rolled up in a rug. They arrested Fraser for possession of 24 heroin pills. Later, after being convicted, he would spend several months in prison.
In an interview at Pace London, Vyner explained that she had been a close friend of Fraser’s goddaughter. She first met Fraser in the late 1970s, when he took the two young women and Malcolm McLaren to an Adam Ant concert. Through her interaction with the art dealer during the last years of his life, along with the many interviews with his friends and associates she did for her book (which takes the form of an oral-history collection of reminiscences), she acquired a deep knowledge of his personal history. “Believe it or not, since his death, not a lot has been written about the influence of Robert’s gallery or its legacy,” Vyner told me. “When he died, there wasn’t even an obituary in any of the major British newspapers.”
Robert Fraser was the son of Lionel Fraser, a wealthy banker whose father had worked as a butler for Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges, the London department store. A self-made man, Lionel Fraser was highly respected and, in 1945, King George VI bestowed upon him a distinguished civilian honor. Robert, his older brother Nicholas, and their older sister, Janet, who died in young adulthood, grew up in a privileged setting. Their mother, Cynthia, was a devout follower of Christian Science, that 19th century strain of religious-philosophical kookiness that holds that illness is merely an illusion (to be cured by prayer, not doctors). In the years before World War II, Robert’s parents traveled to Paris, where they gallery-hopped and enjoyed seeing works by such modern artists as Paul Cézanne, Georges Rouault, Chaim Soutine, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Klee.
As youngsters, Nicholas and Robert attended a Christian Science school. Both went on to Eton, the legendary prep school whose graduates regularly became captains of British industry and government grandees. In Vyner’s book, the American industrialist and art collector J. Paul Getty, who became one of Robert’s friends and gallery customers, observes, “Robert transcended class, very much in a Sixties way. But somehow he got sent to Eton, which is what formed him to a great extent. […] It’s still one of the best places to learn arrogance.”
Nicholas Fraser explained to Vyner that it was his parents’ “strong Puritan ethic” and “strict humorless attitude to life” that shaped his younger brother more than their belief in Christian Science and “gave him something to kick against.” But as many of the speakers in Groovy Bob point out, Robert both embraced tradition and rejected it. At Eton, he hated sports and loved learning about art. He also became fully aware of his homosexuality.
After graduating from Eton, Robert headed off to Uganda, where, in the waning days of empire, he served in the King’s African Rifles. There, he made time for partying with colonial administrators and even, it was later rumored, a brief fling with his sergeant major, a skilled boxer named Idi Amin. After his Africa stint, Fraser made his way to the United States, where he spent a few years in New York and Los Angeles meeting artists and other key art world figures. He became friends with such artists as Dine, Dennis Hopper, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman. In Groovy Bob, the art historian John Richardson, who also became Fraser’s friend, remembers meeting him around 1960 and says, “My impression of him was [of someone] bright, attractive, rather glamorous, not totally to be trusted, on the make, very elegant, fun to be with, a bit secretive.”
Returning to England in 1962, at the age of 25, he opened his gallery with a show of drawings by the French modernist Jean Dubuffet, whose graffiti-inspired images shook up London’s staid art scene. During a roller coaster ride of parties, exhibitions, sexcapades and drugfests that unfolded throughout that decade, Fraser presented the work of such artists as Richard Lindner, Henri Michaux, Bacon, Blake, Hamilton, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Paolozzi, Patrick Caulfield, Bruce Conner, Hans Bellmer, Bridget Riley, Haworth, Warhol, Dine, and many others.
In a dialog with Vyner that appears in the current exhibition’s catalog, Clarke says the show tries to capture “the buzz that Robert had.” He notes, “To many people he was grand, to others groovy. Certainly, he had one foot in the 1960s, but also one foot very much back in the 1950s.” Clarke adds that, “[d]espite all his wildness,” Fraser “was drawn to that more formal era,” even if he played a big part in ushering in a subsequent decade whose attitudes and aspirations seemed to obliterate those that had come before them.
In late 1966, on the occasion of a show of Dine’s works, Fraser’s gallery was served a summons under an antiquated vagrancy law that prohibited the public display of “obscene” material. As a statement issued by the gallery at that time indicated, 21 of Dine’s drawings, “some of them showing various parts of the human body, were seized by the police,” along with copies of the exhibition’s catalog. A court later ruled the exhibition, but not the confiscated artworks, to have been indecent and charged Fraser a fine. Referring to the British government’s heavy-handedness, he sent a telegram to Dine in the U.S. It stated, “REGINA VERSUS VAGINA. LOVE, ROBERT.”
Referring to Fraser’s lifestyle at his home in London’s Mayfair district, the former Whitechapel Art Gallery curator Bryan Robertson, who died in 2002, told Vyner in Groovy Bob, “[T]hey were after Robert for drugs, quite simply.” Robertson called the Dine indecency affair “one of those silly little vendettas that went on in the Sixties.”
In early 1967 came the drug bust at Richards’s home, but before Fraser was convicted and sent to prison, he art directed the famous cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose unusual, three-dimensional collage concept had been devised by the then husband-and-wife team of Hamilton and Haworth. The album’s cover image was shot by the photographer Michael Cooper. Later that year, when the art dealer was in jail, Cooper sent him an encouraging telegram. It said, in part, “MY DEAR ROBERT ALL IS NOT BLACK […] REMEMBER THEY NAILED JESUS TO THE CROSS….”
A Strong, Sweet Smell of Incense features a recreation of Fraser’s workspace in his original gallery, complete with his modern, steel-and-glass desk, which is surrounded by artworks. Among others, they include Haworth’s “Cowboy” (1964), a life-size figure made of kapok and unbleached calico; Derek Boshier’s oil-on-canvas abstraction, “Sam Spade” (1966); Barker’s “Art Box 1” (1966), made of chrome-plated steel, chrome-plated bronze and Vitrolite; and Blake’s “Drum Majorette” (1959), a tailor’s dummy decorated with military medals. Other works on view in the gallery include Blake’s hand-painted drum from the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover; a selection of Oldenburg’s large-scale electric plugs and outlets, made of cardboard; Paolozzi’s abstract-bronze sculptures from the late 1950s and mid-1960s; Bacon’s oil-on-canvas “Portrait of John Edwards” (1988); and Basquiat’s oil-on-canvas portrait, “ROB’T FRAZER” (1984).
Also on view are Hamilton’s lithograph made from a collage of newspaper articles describing the 1967 drug bust at Richards’ house (“Swingeing London ’67,” 1967–68) along with two paintings in different media that the artist produced using a photo from one of those press reports. That photo shows Fraser and Jagger in the back of a car, handcuffed together at the wrists and holding up their hands to shield their faces from reporters’ cameras. Hamilton’s common title for these works is both a pun on “Swinging London” and a reference to a remark Fraser’s sentencing judge made when he noted that the punishment he was meting out was notably “swingeing,” meaning severe, daunting or extreme.
The exhibition also features a large vitrine packed with photographs, documents and printed items. Among them are letters and telegrams from artists pleading for overdue payments. Others show how chummy Fraser was with many of his art-buying customers.
After going into a short period of receivership, since Fraser had not paid many of his creditors, his Duke Street gallery plowed ahead, presenting exhibitions by such artists as Barker, Caulfield, Blake, Haworth, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In mid-1969, though, it mounted its last show, a selection of works by a group of American Pop artists. Fraser’s consumption of booze and drugs was still going strong, and he had become interested in Tantric art. He left England and spent the early 1970s in India, then returned several years later to operate as a private art dealer and to visit New York and savor its gritty charms. In 1983, he again opened a London gallery, which became an overseas showcase for the work of such young New Yorkers as Haring and Basquiat
At the time of his first gallery’s closing, Fraser had told one art critic, “There has never been any desire on the part of the English people for new things.” In Groovy Bob, the artist Jann Haworth says, “[W]hen he did open the second gallery, where was everybody? He was still putting on very interesting shows, but it was almost a non-event.” Haworth partly blames “the mood of the times,” which were then dominated by Margaret Thatcher’s conservatism. Nevertheless, Fraser’s cutting edge sensibility was still at work, as when, for example, he persuaded London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to acquire works by Jamie Reid, the punk-graphics creator who had designed the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks record-album cover, but the ailing art dealer’s involvement in his gallery declined along with his health.
For McLaren, who is quoted in Vyner’s book, Fraser had always been “right in the center of it, always wearing those ubiquitous sunglasses” and looking “spookily cool.” Perhaps, as the lost aura the artworks, letters and documents on display in A Strong, Sweet Smell of Incense try to evoke, and as, overall, the exhibition suggests, McLaren was right when he added that the decade of the 1960s “was not a pragmatic era” but rather “the exact opposite — it was a romantic era.” The Robert Fraser he knew, he noted, had been “part of a moment in pop culture, part of a time which could afford to have such romantic figures….” After all, by the time McLaren, who died four years ago, made those comments, the international art world had long since become a totally corporatized behemoth, one whose swingeing hype had decisively doused the flames of insouciance and replaced grooviness with greed.