Groovy Bob of Duke Street

The world of art in the UK in the post war years was one of elitism.

However, in a post war ‘brave new world’ things were about to change. Everything from music, fashion, food, film, books, theatre and art, were slowly being shaken up by a new breed, fresh out of colleges and universities.

Robert Fraser was one these early ‘influencers’. He was Eton educated and an ex army officer from wealthy banking stock. His father Lionel was self-made however, the son of the butler to Harry Selfridge, the founder of the Selfridges department store on Oxford Street.

Despite his on the surface respectability, Fraser was from the mid 1950s investigating the burgeoning art scene in New York. He lived amongst and got to know well, the artists, who in a few short years would be names on the tongues of those, in the know.

Names like Jim Dine Ed Ruscha and later Andy Warhol were soon on the radar of Fraser, who despite his impeccable Savile Row suit fitted right in among the bohemian art scene of that time. Fraser was also gay and it is fair to say he fully enjoyed that lifestyle lived mainly in the shadows to the maximum.

Once back in London, he opened the Robert Fraser Gallery at 69 Duke Street in Mayfair in 1962, with the financial backing of his parents. Soon, he was the dealer of choice for the likes of Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield and Richard Hamilton among others, putting their work on the map with not only the established art buyers, but also those at the forefront of the music and film scene of that period.

Soon, members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were his firm friends and his openings were attended by Hollywood A-listers, with Marlon Brando and new kid on the block Dennis Hopper regular visitors to Duke Street.

The firm friendship with the Paul McCartney especially, had some influence on the selection of Peter Blake to design the sleeve for the 1967 album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Later, another of the artists he looked after, Richard Hamilton designed their White Album of from 1968.

He also gifted McCartney a painting by Rene Magritte of an apple, which is thought the inspiration and subsequent logo of the ‘Apple’ company that looked after the affairs of the band.

‘Groovy Bob’ as Fraser was now known among that small but very swinging London scene, was also now experimenting heavily with drugs. As mentioned earlier, he was now very close to the Rolling Stones and got caught up in the infamous raid by the drugs squad at ‘Redlands’ the country home of Keith Richards. Richards, along with Mick Jagger were charged with possession, and convicted and sentenced to three months and twelve months respectively.

However, both were acquitted on appeal. Fraser, also arrested, pleaded guilty and served a sentence of six months hard labour.

Hamilton’s later painting ‘Swingeing London’ shows Richards and Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a police van.

Shortly after release, and soon in the grip of a severe heroin addiction, Fraser closed his gallery in 1969.

He spent most of the 1970s in India, before returning to open a new gallery in Cork Street in 1983, though his addiction to drugs and alcohol remained.

His ‘art eye’ however, was as good as it ever was and exhibitions there he held introduced the work of Keith Haring and Basquiat to the UK.

In 1985 he discovered he was suffering from AIDS and sold the gallery.

He succumbed to the illness in January 1986, becoming one of the first patients in the UK to die at home aged just 48.

A sad end to someone who once shone very bright.