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Portrait of James Abbot Whistler, but his friend Walter Greaves.

Walter Greaves

(1846-1930)

Biography

Born in London in 1846, Greaves was the son of a boatman. Walter and his brother Henry were also boatmen and found employment rowing the artist and eventual friend, James Abbot Whistler up and down the Thames whilst Greaves made studies of London, just as their father had previously done for J.MW. Turner. Greaves would later reminisce “He taught us to paint, and we taught him the waterman’s jerk”.

Greaves was already an accomplished artist, although his style was somewhat literal and based on close observation. Whistler, however, was developing a style which was looser and more confident which made a great impression on Greaves who soon fell under Whistler’s influence. It was said that Greaves would even dress like Whistler and wear gloves and a hat complimented by a Whistler-style moustache. Greaves received some tuition from Whistler and in 1876 he was invited to assist him with an important commission to decorate the dining room of a Kensington townhouse owned by shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (1831-1892). Known as The Peacock Room, it is regarded as one of Whistler’s greatest artistic achievements and is now on display at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

As Whistler’s reputation grew he began to attract a more illustrious clientele, and after moving to a more affluent area of London he began to distance himself from Greaves. Following Whistler’s marriage 10 years later communication ceased entirely and in 1903 Whistler died.

Read full biography

Born in London in 1846, Greaves was the son of the boatman. Walter and his brother Henry were also boatmen and found employment rowing James Abbot Whistler up and down the Thames whilst he made studies of London, just as their father had previously done for J.MW. Turner. Greaves would later reminisce “He taught us to paint, and we taught him the waterman’s jerk”.

Greaves was already an accomplished artist, although his style was somewhat literal and based on close observation. Whistler, however, was developing a style which was looser and more confident which made a great impression on Greaves who soon fell under Whistler’s influence. It was said that Greaves would even dress like Whistler and wear gloves and a hat complimented by a Whistler-style moustache. Greaves received some tuition from Whistler and in 1876 he was invited to assist him with an important commission to decorate the dining room of a Kensington townhouse owned by shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (1831-1892). Known as The Peacock Room, it is regarded as one of Whistler’s greatest artistic achievements and is now on display at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

As Whistler’s reputation grew he began to attract a more illustrious clientele, and after moving to a more affluent area of London he began to distance himself from Greaves. Following Whistler’s marriage 10 years later communication ceased entirely and in 1903 Whistler died.

After struggling for many years to sell his work, Greaves experienced a resurgence of interest in 1911 following an exhibition of his work at the Goupil Galleries in London. Although the exhibition was a great success, it was forced to close early after two of Whistler’s friends claimed some of Greaves’s paintings were actually unfinished works by Whistler which Greaves stole from his studio and reworked. The scandal destroyed Greaves’s reputation and ruined him financially, which may explain his decision to sell his cherished collection of Whistler memorabilia the following year at auction – our portrait was lot 28.

For another decade Greaves lived as a recluse but then in 1921 a group of painters including William Rothenstein (1872-1945) and Augustus John (1878-1961) staged a successful exhibition of his work which led to his election as an honorary member of the Chelsea Arts Club. In 1930, after finally receiving some recognition as a painter, Greaves died of pneumonia and was buried in the Charterhouse graveyard and Little Hallingbury in Essex.

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500 Years of British Art