Indiosyncratic Dealers Revealed
TWO WRITERS tackled the posthumous biographies of two contemporary art dealers, divided by a generation gap of 40 years but who died a mere 10 years apart. In a strange coincidence, both authors eschewed the traditional A-Z, crib to grave panorama and decided on the In-Their-Own-Words format. By doing so, the already remarkable similarities between these two flamboyant art world operators became even more pronounced.
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Harriet Vyner’s expanded reprint (Heni Press) of her 1999 Faber & Faber book on Robert Fraser (1937-86), the old Etonian dealer who came to prominence in the 1960s and then again – briefly – with a Cork Street gallery in the 1980s, conjures the erratic brilliance of the man through a myriad reminiscences from friend and foe alike.
In Darren Coffield’s tribute volume on his friend and sometime colleague, Joshua Compston (1970-96), the same formula is used to reveal the troubled and mercurial personality of a character archetypical of the post-punk, YBA generation that colonised the then derelict East End of London and who thrived on the ‘can-do’ dynamic to make change happen.
Compston was born in Putney, the son of a judge, and educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford. Fraser, the son of a banker, was educated at Eton, and spent several years as an officer in the King’s African Rifles. Both eventually fell victim to their own demons of identity and sense of place. What Fraser did to ruffle the feathers of Mayfair, Compston and his Factual Nonsense gallery did for the impoverished backwater that was then Hoxton.
Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser
PB: 356pp ISBN: 978-0-9930103-9-2
Factual Nonsense: The Art and Death of Joshua Compston
HB: 280pp ISBN: 978-1780885261
DAVID HERBERT I always respected Robert. He respected me. I had an eye for art, and so we got along very well. And we’d go around to artists’ studios and it was just wonderful, because we both zeroed in on what was good. It was great to talk to him.
IRVING BLUM The most remarkable thing about Robert was his almost instantaneous understanding of what was going on in the art world in America. He understood in the 60s that there was this groundswell of real activity and he was able to sort through it in a very precise way and get right to the core of it.
ELLSWORTH KELLY He was very likeable, friendly, and there was a certain immediate bond between us. Robert was a very courageous and flamboyant dealer. He had a big collection of my early drawings.
JOHN RICHARDSON One of the odd things about Robert was that he always dressed up. The rest of us were in blue jeans and leather jackets and up to no good in the Village, but Robert always had an impeccable blazer, very Old Etonian, consciously so.
DEREK BOSHIER He’d sometimes talk about boys. He might see one and say, ‘Oh, he’s very pretty’. He didn't hide the fact that he was gay, but he wasn’t queenie about it.
KASMIN You might go wild and get turned on at times, but in the background is the wife, the child, the mortgage, etc. The difference between Robert and me was that I was always considered the soul of probity, and he was bohemian, financially irregular, shall I say.
RICHARD HAMILTON The only way I can date that occasion of showing with Robert was that I left teaching in Newcastle in 1966. Robert Fraser said, ‘Give up teaching and I will guarantee that you have the same income that you’re getting from teaching, plus a few things that you’re selling’. So I said, ‘That sounds like a reasonable deal,’ and I gave up my job. A few months later I got a cheque that bounced.
MICK JAGGER I liked Robert very much, but he was obviously a tremendous sharpie, someone you had to be a bit careful with, moneywise and otherwise. But he was a great taste person. Robert was bringing in a new kind of visual sensibility.
J PAUL GETTY He deserves to be remembered, Robert. He really was an icon of his time and I think that when he died there wasn’t an obituary in any of the major papers. Which is a shame, because he certainly required one.
BRIAN CLARKE When Robert died it was like the end of an era. That’s easily and frequently said, but when Robert died it was definitely a turning point. Something bigger than Robert had ended for me and for quite a few people.
DAVID BAILEY It’s having individuals like Robert around that makes England worthwhile. They make England work. We’re a dull bunch otherwise aren’t we?
SAM TAYLOR-WOOD I knew in Joshua’s lifetime that he was going to become this sort of fascinating figure posthumously. I knew that he was always going to be the dandy romantic of that time as well. And I think he knew that too.
TABITHA POTTS A lot of people were pretending to be from a sort of working class background or there was a lot of class stuff going on. Josh was A: not ashamed of being intellectual, and B: not ashamed of being posh.
CHARLES BOOTH-CLIBBORN Because he was mad in all fairness, people did get rather fed up with him because he was always broke, we all were broke but he was more broke than everybody else.
ZEBEDEE HELM He really thought art could help people and improve their lives. All his plans for art galleries were set in massive warehouses in the East End, and the people that work there had to be from the East End, from the blocks of flats, not these posh women wafting their hair but people who knew nothing about art; he was Zionistic in that respect.
MAX WIGRAM The entire area is his legacy. He championed it, he moved in there first, he told everybody about it, he publicised it, he attracted people to the area, he did... I think that's probably his greatest achievement, the redevelopment of Hoxton. Without him, it wouldn't have happened.
ANDREW WAUGH I mean the bizarre thing is that now it seems to me that everything he was trying to do then is now fashionable, and accepted. The graphics that him and Tom did in 1992 are now like an established graphic art form. Even the way he dressed, you know, the only thing that Joshua lacked was a fixed wheel bike. He was the first hipster really in many ways.
GAVIN TURK I didn't really seem him as an artist. I saw him as an entrepreneur, as someone who was in the art world but was approaching it or wanted different things out of it. He really did want to start a factory and make art much more an everyday experience.
CLEMENTINE DELISS I think he was a pioneer of this whole question of sociability within art practice. You couldn't make out whether he was an artist, an entrepreneur, an impresario, a curator, a producer, a publisher – whatever that was. That was all part of it.
CHLOE RUTHVEN Tom Shaw always said he’d die at 42 and he died at 42, and Josh said he’d die at 25 and he died at 25, didn’t he? So maybe some people do have a sense of the pace at which they want to live their life
MAUREEN PALEY So you can have mercurial talent that somehow in a supernova-ish way can come into the world like this fireball of energy and literally, like some meteoric thing, drop to the earth or move away from the earth and really just like a shooting star it extinguishes very quickly.
SARAH LUCAS But in another way this was one of the very hardest things to take for a lot of people – me being one of them, Jay Jopling I think being another – because you really did envisage this future for him.
JAY JOPLING I don’t believe he committed suicide; I’m sure it was an accident. He was involved in too many projects and had too many ideas going on for him to want to draw things to a close.