Page 1: Biography
Fraser, Robert Henry
Stained glass artist
This biography, written by Jock Phillips, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Robert Henry Fraser was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 10 December 1869, the son of Christina Drummond and her husband, Charles Henry Fraser, a carpenter. Robert was largely brought up by his mother, who ran a successful fruit shop. About 1883 Fraser was apprenticed to a Dunedin glass embosser, Nathaniel Leves. About six years later he accompanied his mother to London, where he studied at the National Art Training School in South Kensington. He then became the top apprentice for a firm of decorative artists, Collinson and Locks.
By 1893 Fraser had returned to Dunedin and established himself in a partnership with W. T. Milward. The firm's services included glass embossing, sign writing, scene painting and the design of advertisements, but it was Fraser's glass work which attracted the interest of Dunedin's urban élite. Within a year he had left the partnership and set himself up as a glass embosser and artist in stained glass. On 28 February 1894, at Kaitangata, he married Mary Haining Corson; they were to have two daughters and two sons.
Robert Fraser was the first glass painter in New Zealand. Domestic leaded windows had previously used simple geometric shapes of coloured glass, while the more complex church windows, involving painted and fired glass, had been imported from abroad. Fraser designed and patented his own kiln to produce painted glass. To this technical ingenuity he added a powerful visual imagination and a superb design sense. Among his earliest domestic commissions was a series of three panels for the Throp mansion in Roslyn, Dunedin. This remarkable work begins with Arcadian images, which are subtly transformed in the final stairwell panel into the famous 'devil's window', where demonic faces and an owl grin through their fangs. Other commissions followed, a few using similar grotesque images, rather more drawing on Renaissance conventions of cherubs and floral motifs. All were characterised by first-rate craftsmanship and bold, flowing designs.
Fraser gained the highest award for domestic and ecclesiastical glass at the New Zealand International Exhibition held at Christchurch in 1906–7; and as his reputation grew, churches offered him work. His earliest religious window was in the Moray Place Congregational Church, Dunedin, and for some 30 years he received a steady number of church commissions from throughout the country. Notable examples of his work are to be found in Auckland, Waipawa, Mount Peel, Dunedin and Invercargill. Fraser, a nominal Methodist, was never a deeply religious man, and the subject matter of these windows followed religious convention; but they are distinguished by a fine use of colour, continued technical proficiency and uncluttered, pleasing design.
Fraser was a round-faced man with a good sense of humour. He was, however, a poor businessman with a propensity to spend money on horses. He worked briefly for Smith and Smith, but for much of his career he was forced to use his artistic talents in a range of ingenious ways. He embossed windows for hotels; in 1918 he established the Art War Memorial Tablet Company to provide plaster-of-Paris models of fallen soldiers for grieving relatives; in the twenties he painted friezes in picture theatres; and he painted the interior dome at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, held at Dunedin in 1925–26. Mary Fraser died at Dunedin on 27 June 1940; Robert died at Napier on 30 May 1947 without achieving the public recognition he deserved.