Walter Greaves

(4 July 1846-– 28 November 1930)

Walter Greaves and his brother Henry were the sons of Charles William Greaves, a Chelsea boat-builder and waterman. They had two sisters Eliza and Alice ('Tinnie') Fay who acted as models for them and James McNeill Whistler. Whistler was particularly fond of the latter.

The Greaves brothers were both apprenticed to their father. However, they met James McNeill Whistler in 1863 and became his studio assistants. Walter Greaves recalled, 'We used to get ready his colours and canvasses, prepare the grey distemper ground which he so liked working upon, and painted the mackerel-back pattern on the frames.' During the 1870s, they would row him up and down the Thames as he worked, as their father had rowed Turner before them. Walter and Henry used to attend M. Barthe's life classes at Limerston Street in Chelsea in the company of James McNeill Whistler, and would also join him on drawing expeditions. 'He taught us to paint, and we taught him the waterman's jerk', declared Walter Greaves. Walter admired James McNeill Whistler greatly and rapidly began to imitate him in style and manner. However, in the late 1870s James McNeill Whistler turned his back on Walter in favour of the young artists Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes. Their friendship lasted for about twenty years.

As a painter and etcher, Walter was primarily concerned with the London city and riverscape. His early works show a naive realism, eg. Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day (ca. 1862) and Old Battersea Bridge (ca. 1863). His later nocturnes, drawings and etchings display the influence of James McNeill Whistler. He also executed many drawings and paintings of James McNeill Whistler. Walter Greaves exhibited in London at the Grosvenor Gallery and the Goupil Galleries, as well as at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and Manchester City Art Gallery.

William Nicholson captures Walter Greaves' dandyish appearance in a portrait in which he is shown in a tail coat standing against a white piano. However, Walter spent many years in neglect and poverty. He was re-discovered by William Marchant, proprietor of the Goupil Galleries, who put on an exhibition of his work in 1911. The Pennells, however, accused Greaves of plagiarising James McNeill Whistler's work and he fell once again into obscurity. The final eight years of his life were spent as a Poor Brother of the Charterhouse.


The son of Charles William Greaves, a Chelsea boat builder and waterman, and his wife, Elizabeth Greenway, Greaves was born in 1846 at 31 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London. His father had been J. M. W. Turner's boatman. Greaves and one of his brothers, Henry Greaves, met Whistler in 1863, introducing him to the sights of the River Thames, and becoming his studio assistants, pupils and close friends for over 20 years. The American painter later used these Thames expeditions for inspiration when painting his ‘nocturne’ views of the river at night. "He taught us to paint", Walter Greaves said, "and we taught him the waterman's jerk". Walter Greaves had initially trained as a shipwright and boatman.

The most famous of Greaves' paintings is Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day, a naïve masterpiece which he claimed to have painted when he was aged sixteen in 1862; however, since he was unreliable over dates, its history has never been settled. The Greaves brothers accompanied Whistler to life class and Walter Greaves attempted to paint portraits, some of his most successful being of their neighbour Thomas Carlyle, whom Whistler also painted. Greaves also drew and painted Whistler, sometimes in caricature, in Chelsea settings and in characteristic moods. In 1876 the Greaves brothers helped Whistler decorate the Peacock Room (now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), for the shipowner Frederick Leyland.

During the late 1870s Whistler began to gather a more sophisticated group of friends about himself, including Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes. Excluded from this distinguished circle, Greaves suffered years of neglect, misfortune and poverty before his discovery by William Marchant, proprietor of the Goupil Galleries, who exhibited Greaves's work in his London gallery in 1911.

Greaves's new-found glory was short-lived, however: three weeks after the exhibition opened, Whistler's self-appointed biographers, Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Pennell, damaged Greaves's reputation by claiming that he had plagiarized Whistler's work. In May 1911, Greaves sold eight letters from Whistler to his father and himself at auction. Another exhibition of his work was held in 1922 at the Grosvenor Gallery arranged by Augustus John, William Nicholson and William Rothenstein. He was elected an honorary member of the Chelsea Arts Club.

Despite the support of a few fellow painters, including Sickert, Greaves again fell into obscurity and spent his last eight years as a Poor Brother of the London Charterhouse.

Greaves died, unmarried, of pneumonia in the West London Hospital, Hammersmith, on 23 November 1930. He was buried in the Charterhouse graveyard at Little Hallingbury in Essex.

His former home at 104 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where he lived from 1855 to 1897, has a commemorative blue plaque.


Greaves, Walter, boat builder and painter, the son of Charles William Greaves, a Chelsea boat builder and waterman, and his wife, Elizabeth Greenway, was born on 4 July 1846 at 31 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London. He was living at 10 Lindsey Row in Chelsea when in 1863 the young James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his mother moved into 7 Lindsey Row.

Whistler became friends with Greaves and his brother Henry, two years his senior; the brothers took Whistler rowing on the Thames -- as their father had rowed J. M. W. Turner -- and the American painter later used such expeditions for inspiration when painting his ‘nocturne’ views of the river at night. ‘He taught us to paint’, Walter Greaves said, ‘and we taught him the waterman's jerk’ (E. R. Pennell and J. Pennell, Life of James McNeill Whistler, 76), the Thames rowing stroke. The brothers, both amateur artists who drew detailed Chelsea scenes, became Whistler's studio assistants and he taught them to paint in an impressionistic style. Their styles diverged somewhat from their master's: Walter Greaves explained matter-of-factly, ‘To Mr. Whistler, a boat was always a tone, to us it was always a boat’ (Brinton, 62).

Walter Greaves's own work -- in oils, watercolour, pastel, pen and ink, pencil, and etching -- was varied, the best retaining the high quality of his topographical draughtsmanship and that in Whistlerian style showing marked individuality of touch. The most celebrated and mysterious of his paintings is Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day, a naïve masterpiece, which he claimed to have painted when he was aged sixteen; however, since he was unreliable over dates, its history has never been settled. The Greaves brothers accompanied Whistler to life class and Walter tried portraiture, some of his most successful being of their neighbour Thomas Carlyle, whom Whistler also painted. Greaves also drew and painted Whistler, sometimes in caricature, in Chelsea settings and in characteristic moods. In 1876 the brothers helped Whistler decorate the Peacock Room (now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), for the shipowner Frederick Leyland.

Two years later Whistler left Lindsey Row, moving to the smarter Tite Street, and the Greaves brothers were gradually discarded, the break becoming final on Whistler's marriage a decade later. Having abandoned boat building, the brothers tried to live as artists but, despite a commission to paint murals of riverside scenes in Streatham town hall, they were reduced to hawking drawings of Chelsea in pubs and at tradesmen's entrances. Greaves's attempts at a reconciliation with Whistler failed and he was turned away from the house in which his former patron was dying in 1903. Henry Greaves died a year later, in 1904, and Walter fell deeper into penury.

In 1911, a large number of Greaves's paintings were discovered in a second-hand bookshop; William Marchant, the dealer, recognized their quality and exhibited them at the Goupil Galleries in London. The exhibition was a sensation, the newspapers making much of Greaves's friendship with Whistler and the latter's cavalier treatment of his friend. When a critic suggested that it was Greaves who had inspired Whistler, and not vice versa, the latter's American friends Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell fiercely defended his reputation. They claimed that the paintings were unfinished works by Whistler, which Greaves had stolen from his studio, touched up, and signed himself. Unjust as this was, it so damaged Greaves's reputation that the exhibition closed and he returned to near destitution. He moved to 525 Fulham Road in 1897 and to 33 Lillie Road, Fulham, in 1919. Yet he still haunted the Chelsea riverside in his battered top hat, with his grey moustache and hair darkened with bootblack, selling his drawings for trifling sums or bartering them for food or coal.

Finally, in 1921, several prominent artists -- Augustus John, William Nicholson, and William Rothenstein among them -- rescued both Greaves and his reputation. Another exhibition was arranged, he was elected an honorary member of the Chelsea Arts Club, and in 1922 a place of retirement was found for him at the Charterhouse in the City of London. Greaves died, unmarried, of pneumonia in West London Hospital, Hammersmith, on 23 November 1930. He was buried in the Charterhouse graveyard at Little Hallingbury in Essex. Two self-portraits by Greaves are in the Tate collection, which also owns other examples of his work, including Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day; another large painting in oils, The Last Chelsea Regatta, is in Manchester City Galleries and another major work in oils, The Boating Pond, Battersea Park, was rediscovered in 1992 and is now in a private collection. Exhibitions have been held by the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea (1968) and by the Parkin Gallery, London (1980 and 1984).

Full Reference: Walter Greaves, Pupil of Whistler: archive.org>