After becoming neighbours in 1863, a friendship developed between Whistler and Greaves. Walter and his brother Henry were boatmen and found employment rowing Whistler up and down the Thames whilst he made studies of London, just as their father had previously done for J.MW. Turner....

Walter Greaves’s portraits are amongst the most iconic within Whistler’s iconography and the present work, painted in 1869, is one of the earliest recorded examples by Greaves. It was clearly of great sentimental value to the artist and it remained in his possession until 1912 when it was sold in New York as part of his collection of Whistler memorabilia.

Whistler is shown seated, possibly in a boat, and maintains an image of a flaneur, an impartial, non-judgemental observer of contemporary life. Wearing a monocle in his right eye, Whistler glances away in a haughty manor, his hat tilted back to show his famous ‘white lock’. Old Battersea Bridge (built in 1771) is shown in the background and on the left can be seen the Swan Tavern. This area of the Thames was frequently painted by Greaves and Whistler, both of whom lived nearby – the latter lived at 2 Lindsey Row (now 96 Cheyne Walk), a few metres...

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Walter Greaves’s portraits are amongst the most iconic within Whistler’s iconography and the present work, painted in 1869, is one of the earliest recorded examples by Greaves. It was clearly of great sentimental value to the artist and it remained in his possession until 1912 when it was sold in New York as part of his collection of Whistler memorabilia.

Whistler is shown seated, possibly in a boat, and maintains an image of a flaneur, an impartial, non-judgemental observer of contemporary life. Wearing a monocle in his right eye, Whistler glances away in a haughty manor, his hat tilted back to show his famous ‘white lock’. Old Battersea Bridge (built in 1771) is shown in the background and on the left can be seen the Swan Tavern. This area of the Thames was frequently painted by Greaves and Whistler, both of whom lived nearby – the latter lived at 2 Lindsey Row (now 96 Cheyne Walk), a few metres from where Whistler is shown here.

After becoming neighbours in 1863, a friendship developed between Whistler and Greaves. Walter and his brother Henry were boatmen and found employment rowing Whistler up and down the Thames whilst he made studies of London, just as their father had previously done for J.MW. Turner. Graves 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