Groovy Bob is an account of the life of Robert Fraser, the art dealer immortalised by Richard Hamilton’s picture of him and his friend, Mick Jagger, handcuffed together after the police raid on Keith Richards’ country house at Redlands. Fraser is one of the sixties’ forgotten men. He was a force of nature and a hedonist, who was instrumental in bringing Pop Art to the UK. The driving force behind Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s cover for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, he also brought Rauschenberg, Twombly, Warhol, Oldenburg, Haring etcetera to the public eye, not to mention staging exhibitions in his gallery including work by Dubuffet, Bacon, Caulfield, Riley and many more. However, as the title of the book suggests, more than being just an art dealer, Fraser was also a pivotal figure in the development of what has come to be known as the swinging sixties. An old Etonian, born into wealth, he set out to cross the class divide, participating in the pop world, the criminal world and the burgeoning gay scene. He rode the wave of the sixties dream, moving between New York, London, Morocco and India. His restless curiosity matched the artistic and intellectual movements of that decade, as a post-colonial world began to open up and society sought to recalibrate itself. Vyner’s biography relates this journey and the price Fraser ended up paying for it. Prison was followed by financial ruin and exile. Fraser overcame the setbacks with increased levels of drugs, sex and partying, eventually becoming one of the first British citizens to die of Aids. There are two ways at looking at his story: either as a cautionary tale of a Hogarthian character who lived life to excess and paid for it; or as the story of the comet who blazed the path that future generations would follow. Fraser was entwined with the Beatles and the Stones and the vision of the world they sought to realise. Today that counter-culture has become the mainstream; that which was beyond the pale has been absorbed into the beating heart of the world.
A note on Vyner’s work: the biography is made up of short, verbatim accounts, culled from those who knew Fraser, from the Stones to his mother’s oldest friend. It’s a vivid, generous method of writing biography. Vyner herself sometimes appears as one of the voices, but more than anything this is a curatorship. This allows for the juxtapositions between divergent points of view, with differing contributors sometimes flat-out contradicting one another. In giving the narrators their voice, the range and tenor of the various worlds Fraser inhabited comes through all the more effectively. It makes for a compelling read and leaves the reader feeling as though they have a real handle on who this curious, multi-faceted man might have been.