ADDRESSES: Home—England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19 Union Sq. W, New York, NY 10003.
Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1999.
Also author, with Jools Holland, of the book Beat Route. Contributor to a screenplay, The Last Hangman.
SIDELIGHTS: Harriet Vyner's debut book, Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser, is the biography of Robert Fraser, an influential art dealer and gallery owner of 1960s London. Fraser brought many then unknown cutting-edge artists, such as Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, and Bridget Riley into recognition. A sampling of Fraser's social crowd included Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithful, and Claes Oldenburg. Fraser is known for his 1967 arrest with Richards and Jagger for drug possession. This event is the subject of artist Richard Hamilton's Swinging London, in which Jagger and Fraser are handcuffed, and is used on the back cover of the book.
Vyner was Fraser's close friend of sixteen years. She adores her subject and tells his life story, dedicating the bulk of the book to his successful 1960s, but does not omit his many flaws. Fraser's father was a banker and a self-made millionaire. Fraser attended an English public school, an experience that influenced him. In the London Review of Books, David Sylvester mentioned art historian John Richardson's remark, "The rest of us were in blue jeans and leather jackets . . . but Robert always had an impeccable blazer, very Old Etonian, consciously so." At age twenty-two, he opened the Robert Fraser Gallery in 1962, with the financial help of his father. His gallery, and Fraser himself, began to set trends in the art scene and in the London social scene.
Fraser excelled at public relations and presentation of art. Artist Bridget Riley describes how she and Fraser struggled to display her fifty small, black, white, and gray drawings. David Sylvester relayed what she saw the next day she saw that Fraser "had painted the entire place black—walls, ceiling, all the woodwork, everything was black. And so these little light, pale studies, very fragile pieces of paper, shone, and were set off in an amazing way." While Fraser treated the art well, he was a poor businessman and sometimes did not pay artists.
Fraser led a hedonistic life and was considered self-destructive. He developed a heroin addiction, and, after his drug arrest in 1967, he spent four months in jail. He seemed to lose interest in the gallery, and it closed in 1969. Fraser went to India in the 1970s. He came back to London and opened a gallery in 1983, but it was not well received. He died of AIDS in 1986.
To tell his story, Vyner interviewed those who knew Fraser, more than one hundred people, and chronologically pieced together quotes and anecdotes from the interviews. She also used portions of letters, books, and newspaper articles. Vyner narrates the book's introduction and the beginning of chapters.
Reviewers differ on the effectiveness of Vyner's use of this method of storytelling. Katherine Rook Lieber of Art Scope online wrote, "After a few chapters, despite the reader's best intentions (and attentions), the stream of anecdotes becomes relentless." Rook Lieber also pointed out that the letters are not dated and speakers are only identified by their names, with no explanation of who they were to Fraser or to the social scene. Regardless of the author's ability to pull the book together, Scott Markwell from Book expressed ambivalence toward Fraser, "It eventually becomes difficult to see the book's subject as anything more than a cynical, precocious social climber." A contributor from Kirkus Reviews felt Vyner pulled it off, "Vyner works her material—interviews, newspaper clippings, letters—like an orchestra conductor, at times bringing the reader to a near-swoon from the whirl of drugs, partying, sex, and lethal hangovers, then lightening the clip and freshening the air with breezy talk of soccer or the art scene." Richard Shone, reviewer for Artforum International, concluded that some key figures who knew Fraser—"art writer David Sylvester, Boogie-Woogie author Daniel Moynihan, and dealer Anthony d'Offay"—are not represented in Groovy Bob. David Sylvester thought the book does not cover Fraser's interaction with his family when he was a child. But he noted that Vyner did not have many family members to interview. Sylvester described an obscenity trial that he felt Vyner did not thoroughly cover, in which Fraser was charged with violating an 1838 act prohibiting "obscene" exhibitions. Sylvester thought he would have been a good interview for this topic because of his visit to Scotland Yard as a potential expert witness. Sylvester concluded, "Fraser, then, deserves a better book, but we still owe Vyner a debt for her affectionate rescue of a remarkable man from virtual obscurity." A critic from Biography also acknowledged Vyner's work, "This book is a labor of love, all the more commendable because one rather doubts that Groovy Bob merited the love and attention he got then—and now."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Artforum International, April, 2001, Richard Shone, review of Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser, p. 31.
Biography, fall, 2001, Lucretia Stewart, review of Groovy Bob, p. 992.
Book, May, 2001, Scott Markwell, review of GroovyBob,p. 75.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2001, review of GroovyBob, p. 398.
Library Journal, May 1, 2001, D'Arcy Curwen, review of Groovy Bob, p. 82.
London Review of Books, March 30, 2000, David Sylvester, review of Groovy Bob.
Spectator, October 23, 1999, John McEwen, review of Groovy Bob, pp. 54-55.
Times Literary Supplement, November 19, 1999, Robin Simon, review of Groovy Bob, p. 30.
Art Scope,http://www.artscope.net/ (June 1, 2001), Katherine Rook Lieber, review of Groovy Bob.
Austin Chronicle,http://www.auschron.com/ (July 20, 2001), summary of Groovy Bob.*