Eric Fraser’s work as an illustrator and designer is at once varied and highly distinctive. Developing an assured technique, he could adapt his style to almost any subject matter, from the whimsical to the tragic. As a result, he defined the look of Radio Times for four decades and became a mainstay of J M Dent’s Everyman’s Library – while also creating murals, stained glass and advertisements (including the immortal ‘Mr Therm’).
Eric Fraser was born at 39 Vincent Street, Westminster, London, on 11 June 1902, the only child of the solicitor’s clerk, George Fraser, and his wife, Matilda (née Peartree), the headmistress of the primary department of St Mary’s Church of England elementary school, Hide Place. From 1913 to 1919, he was educated at Westminster City School and, while still a pupil, attended Walter Sickert’s evening classes at Westminster School of Art. Then, in 1919, he won a scholarship to Goldsmiths’ College School of Art.
There he studied under the Headmaster, Francis Marriott (etching, aquatint and mezzotint), and also Clive Gardiner (drawing and painting), Harold Speed (painting), E J Sullivan (book illustration and lithography) and Alfred Taylor (commercial art).
The absence of Sullivan from Goldsmiths in 1923 gave Fraser the chance to teach lithography, and in the same year he assisted Gardiner in producing murals for the Malaya Rubber Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley. Other opportunities arose in 1924, when he exhibited an etching at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and received his first commission from R P Gossop, his agent for almost 60 years. In 1925, he married Irene Lovett at St John’s, Smith Square, Westminster; they would have three sons and a daughter. Soon after their marriage, he and his wife moved to Tennyson Avenue, Twickenham, though he travelled daily to his studio in town. (The studio was first in Essex Street, Strand; then in Paternoster Row, in the City; finally in Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster.)
In 1926, Fraser began to draw for The Radio Times, a collaboration that would last until his death, for it was he more than any other artist that gave the magazine its visual identity. Fraser’s style was founded upon a thorough knowledge of the history of printing methods, which he mainly reproduced in pen and ink; traditional images were combined with mechanistic and scientific motifs to create a Modernist view of the past. He produced drawings for a number of other magazines, including fashion plates for the British version of Harper’s Bazaar, from its inception in 1929. His wide- ranging work for advertising is epitomised by his invention, in 1931, of ‘Mr Therm’ for the Gas, Light and Coke Company.
Before the Second World War, Fraser supplemented his income by teaching figure composition, book illustration and commercial design at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1926-40) and fashion drawing at the Reimann School, Regency Street, Westminster (1938-39).
In 1935, Fraser and his family settled at Penn’s Place, Church Street, Hampton, next to the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. Three years later, it also became his place of work. He continued to respond to commissions throughout the Second World War, while also serving as a full-time ARP Warden in the Civil Defence force. At the end of the war, he was elected one of the first ten Fellows of the Society of Industrial Artists. From 1948, he worked from an asbestos ex-army hut at the end of the garden.
In the post-war period, some significant large-scale commissions confirmed Fraser’s reputation as an artist, notably a mural for the People of Britain pavilion at the Festival of Britain (1951) and stained glass windows for the sanctuary of his own church of St Mary the Virgin (1960-63). However, he continued mainly as an illustrator and increasingly of books, working on such classics as the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Collins, 1951), Manzoni’s The Betrothed (The Folio Society, 1969) and Ovid’s The Art of Love (Limited Editions Club, 1971). His talent for representing traditional imagery as something novel, even progressive, was as pertinent in his dust jacket designs for the Everyman’s Library (1953-72) as it was in Radio Times, for it made manifest the link between cultural wealth and the identity of the contemporary nation. In 1978, he was elected an Honorary Member of the Association of Illustrators.
Fraser died at home on 15 November 1983 and was buried next door at St Mary the Virgin.
The Chris Beetles Gallery held a major retrospective of the work of Eric Fraser in 2013.
His work is represented in the collections of the V&A.
Sylvia Backemeyer (with an essay by Wendy Coates-Smith), Eric Fraser. Designer & Illustrator, London: Lund Humphries, 1988;
Mark Bryant, ‘Fraser, Eric George (1902-1983)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.110221;
Alec Davis (with a postscript by Geoffrey Fraser), The Graphic Work of Eric Fraser, Uffculme: The Uffculme Press, 1985 (2nd edition);
Pat Hodgson, Eric Fraser. An Illustrator of Our Time, London: British Gas plc, 1991