Walter Greaves was the third son and fifth child of Charles William Greaves, a well-known Chelsea boat-builder and waterman. He and his brother Henry, who was two years older, were born at 31 Cheyne Walk, but the family soon moved upstream to Lindsey Row, where the last of six children, Alice, was born in 1852. The river dominated the Greaveses' lives, but art was always a presence. Turner lived nearby, and was often ferried across the river by Charles when he wanted to paint in Battersea. For Walter he was little more than a legend since he died when the boy was five, but another artist neighbour, John Martin, was well known to the Greaves children and always vividly remembered.
Walter and Henry themselves were painting from their earliest years, probably starting by doing heraldic work on boats in their father's yard. They found their subjects in the Chelsea streets and at local regattas, and would often work in tandem, signing their joint productions 'H. & W. Greaves'. Walter , it was said , had a flair for composition, while Henry's forte was detail. Walter Greaves's greatest early work is Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day (Tate Gallery). Some would say it is his masterpiece, and it is certainly that rare commodity, a naive painting of the highest order. Walter himself claimed that it was painted in 1862, when he was sixteeen, but Tom Pocock, in his definitive account of the relationship between Whistler and Greaves (Chelsea Reach, 1970), argues on the basis of the costumes and hairstyles of the women in the crowd who throng the bridge that in fact it was executed nearly a decade later. If so, it must be almost contemporary with the present picture, assuming that this itself is correctly dated (see below).
The brothers encountered Whistler in the early 1860s, not long after the artist had settled in Chelsea. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834, the artist was twelve years older than Walter and a decade older than Henry. Much of his childhood had been spent in Russia, where his father, a civil engineer, was overseeing the construction of the railroad from St Petersburg to Moscow. When his father died in 1849, the rest of the family returned ot America, and two years later young James entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. Art, however, was his real interest, and in 1855 he left for Paris, where he entered the atelier of Charles Gleyre, a follower of J.A.D. Ingres. Here he became a member of the so-called Paris Gang, the circle of expatriate art students and their friends that another of the group, George Du Maurier, was to immortalise in Trilby (1894), his highly romanticised account of the vie de bohème. Whistler was the 'idle apprentice', and the uptight and conventional Edward Poynter, a future president of the Royal Academy, his 'industrious' counterpart.
Whistler's peripatetic boyhood had included a year in England, and in 1859 he moved to London. For several years his life remained nomadic, but he was already powerfully attracted to the Thames at Chelsea, and in 1863 he took a house in Lindsey Row (no. 7), only two doors away from the Greaveses and not far from his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had settled at 16 Cheyne Walk the previous year. It was not long before he met the the Greaves brothers. As Walter later recalled, 'one day we were painting on the river when Whistler, whom we knew by sight as a neighbour, came up to us and watched us at work. He said suddenly, "Come over to my place", and we went there and he showed us his work and his Japanese things. I lost my head over Whistler when I first met him and saw his painting'.
Thus began a relationship that was to last nearly twenty years. It was an extraordinary clash of cultures. Whistler was the sophisticated cosmopolitan, widely travelled and up in all the latest artistic fashions, whether it was the realism of his friend and mentor Gustave Courbet or the craze for everything Japanese that was currently sweeping Paris and was starting to influence his own work so profoundly. The lives of the Greaves brothers, on the other hand, were entirely bounded by Chelsea, and their paintings were as primitive as Whistler's were à la mode. But the friendship worked. To be sure, Whistler needed admiring followers and the Greaveses needed a hero, but Whistler would not have put up with the boys for five minutes if he had not genuinely liked them and found the relationship fruitful. In fact he liked the Greaveses altogether, 'a sort of Peggotty family', as he described them, patronisingly but not unkindly, and certainly accurately. Charles Greaves, now in in his fifties, would give him first-hand accounts of Turner. His wife Elizabeth was, in Pocock's words, 'warm and kindly, ready to laugh helplessly at (his) quips and mimicry'. The Greaves girls, Eliza, Emily and Alice, were young and attractive, good to dance and flirt with during the impromptu, home-produced musical entertainments got up after supper in the Greaveses' parlour. 'We all treated him like a brother', Walter later recalled.
As for Walter and Henry themselves, they willingly acted as Whistler's boatman, ferrying him up and down the river, showing him picturesque old wharves, warehouses, inns, and above all, the Cremorne pleasure gardens by night, a sight that was to inspire his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Art), which, when exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, aroused the ire of Ruskin and thus precipitated the most famous lawsuit in the history of British Art. 'What enjoyable evenings those were', Walter recalled, 'when we used to sit with Whistler at the windows of the hotel and look down on the wonderful scene below; the whole place ablaze with thousands of lamps, and the crowds of dancers, with their multi-coloured dresses, all moving round the brilliantly lighted bandstand, to the strains of the "Derby Gallop" and the noted waltzes of the day'.
It was not long before Walter and Henry, 'very intelligent and nice boys', as Whistler called them, had graduated to being the great man's studio assistants and sounding boards for his revolutionary artistic opinions. It was a heady experience to watch the first 'nocturnes' being painted, not to mention the great portraits of Whistler's early maturity: The Painter's Mother (1871; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), Thomas Carlyle (1872-3, Glasgow Art Gallery), and Miss Cicely Alexander (1872-3; Tate Gallery), in which the sitter stands on a black and white tape carpet made to the artist's design by the Greaves sisters. In return for their services, Whistler taught the boys his own methods of painting and the medium of which he was one of the supreme exponents, etching. He even took them to a local life-class, by way of essential training for them and a refresher course for himself.
Not surprisingly, Walter's work began to change dramatically under Whistler's influence. As in the friendship itself, two very different styles were being brought together, Whistler's ultra sophistication and Walter's naive approach. But again the bizarre coupling was successful. Sometimes one aspect of the marriage was uppermost; here, we sense Walter trying to 'do a Whistler', whether in terms of a 'nocturne', a conventional riverscape or a portrait; there, his innate primitivism re-asserts itself, often with charming effect. Pocock suggests that during Whistler's prolonged absences from Chelsea the brothers would slip back into old ways, forgetting their mentor's emphasis on generalisation and reverting to their love of detail. But whatever the strains inherent in the clash of values, Walter's strong sense of direction and total integrity enabled him to surmount them. He is always ultimately his own man, even when Whistler's influence is all too apparent.
The present picture is dated 1871, but this should be treated with caution. Pocock writes of Walter's 'extraordinary vagueness about dates', and warns that the dates on his pictures and drawings 'were sometimes added years later, and could be wrong by five or ten years'. Even if 1871 is correct, we still cannot be quite sure where the scene is set, since Walter often worked from memory long after the event. We may, however, be confident that Whistler is seen either on the balcony at 7 Lindsey Row or that at 2 Lindsey Row, a grander house downstream to which he removed in February 1867, the Greaves brothers helping to transport his possessions and decorate the new apartments. Assuming that 1871 is correct, Whistler is seen at the age of thirty-eight. Dressed in tight-fitting frock coat, dancing pumps and black top hat, sporting a monocle and wielding a cane with a menacing flourish, he looks every inch the waspish and slightly saturnine dandy he aspired to be. The upper-floor balcony, of a type sometimes known as a 'widow's walk' because it served as a look-out for women watching anxiously for their returning seafaring menfolk, resembles one that had featured in Whistler's own painting Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington), and since this dates from 1864-5, well before Whistler transferred from 7 to 2 Lindsey Row, it may be a reason for arguing that Greaves's picture too is a reminiscence of the earlier abode.
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony is one of Whistler's essays in Japonisme. Four girls are shown sitting, reclining or standing on the eponymous balcony, their Japanese dresses, the porcelain bottle and bowls which they have evidently been using to drink sake, not to mention the occasional butterfly and a spray of cherry-blossom cut off by the lower edge of the frame, all looking a little incongruous in a Chelsea setting with a view of Battersea on the far side of the river. Greaves's painting has none of this dichotomy. The topography of the distant bank, deliberately blurred in Variations in Flesh Colour and Green, is sufficiently defined to allow us to identify Battersea Church and the two chimneys of the local candle factory, while a variety of craft, again pointedly omitted in Whistler's picture, ply up and down the river. Nor does the picture only rely on imagery for its coherence. It is as much a colour harmony as anything Whistler himself conceived, in which the dominant blacks and greys of the sitter's dress and background are off-set by tellingly-placed touches of white, flesh colour, and yellow. The master adored yellow, and always wore a yellow tie.
Grieves was a natural myth-maker. Without him the Whistler legend, certainly the Whistler iconography, would be immeasurably diminished. He drew and painted his mentor obsessively, not only when they were in almost daily contact but long after the relationship had cooled and even after Whistler was dead. The Witt Library contains photographs of over thirty examples, some of them paintings but more often drawings in black and white chalk or the black wash line of which Greaves was a master. We see Whistler full-length, half-length, walking in the street, sitting at his easel, or putting the finishing touches to the portrait of his mother, which stands framed, leaning against the wall, ready for exhibition. Sometimes he wears his topper, sometimes an equally characteristic straw hat with wide brim and low crown, sometimes he is bare-headed, revealing his trademark white quiff. Always he looks slightly sinister and diabolical.
Several images, like ours, are dated to the 1870s, and at least three are in public collections. A half-length painting is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Another, which was seen at the NPG in the exhibition Americans last winter, is in the equivalent institution in Washington, DC (fig. 1), and a wash drawing is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Only to two other sitters did Greaves bring something of the same intense observation, and in neither case is the result numerically nearly so impressive. One was Thomas Carlyle, 'the sage of Chelsea', whom Whistler himself had immortalised, and who was even more famous than Whistler as a local resident. The other was Greaves himself. He painted his own portrait on many occasions, usually making himself look a little like Whistler, whose characteristic mode of dress and style of moustache he also affected in real life.
Alas, there was a term to the happy, carefree friendship that had brought such pleasure and profit to Whistler and the Greaveses alike. As Whistler himself said, 'it is a dangerous thing to be a pupil of Whistler', dangerous in the sense that the master could not abide competition, and when a pupil transgressed by drawing too much attention to himself or failing to show due deference, he must be cut out of his life forever. The Greaveses were victims of the fallout from a member of misfortunes that struck Whistler in the late 1870s. His relationship with the wealthy Liverpool shipowner Frederick Leyland, so promising at first that there was talk of his marrying Mrs Leyland's sister, turned sour as the débacle of the Peacock Room unfolded; and in 1877 he found himself suing Ruskin for libel over the critic's provocative comments on his pictures at the Grosvenor Gallery. Unwittingly, the Greaves brothers added fuel to the flames by admitting that they had not been to see the master's exhibits. As Walter Sickert later recalled, this was 'an act of lèse papillon and no mistake. They made it worse by saying "they didn't mean anything by not going...". If they had meant anything! Words failed'.
An important break with the past came in 1878, when Whistler left Lindsey Row and moved east to an impressive house designed for him in Tite Street by E.W. Godwin. Here life was smarter than in the old days, and Walter and Henry, though still around, were out of place. In 1879 they temporarily lost contact with their hero altogether, when Whistler, declared bankrupt as a result of the Ruskin libel trial, was forced to retreat to Venice. He returned in 1880, but nothing was now the same. Whistler's mother, who had joined him in England in 1863 and who had been very fond of the Greaves family, died in 1881. Meanwhile new and more sophisticated acolytes were gathering, men such as Mortimer Mempes, Walter Sickert and Oscar Wilde. They too would be rejected in due course, but the Greaveses could not compete. The end for Walter and Henry came in 1888, when Whistler, after many affairs and several illegitimate children, finally decided to marry. His wife Beatrice, the widow of E.W. Godwin, disapproved of the Greaveses and insisted that they be dropped. As Walter was to put it, 'one day (Whistler) got married and vanished'.
The brothers, who were still only in their forties, resumed their earlier life as local artists, as well as something of their old artistic style. Walter accepted his rejection philosophically and always hoped for a reconciliation, but it never came. When Whistler, now a widower who had returned once more to live in Cheyne Walk, lay dying in the summer of 1903, Walter plucked up courage to call, only to be shown the door. The brothers did not attend Whistler's funeral in Chelsea Old Church, although they stood across the road by the river wall, sketching the proceedings.
The last thirty years of Walter's life were tragic. He still kept up a semblance of gentility, continuing to dress in Whistlerian style, dying his hair black and sporting a yellow tie, but poverty was an ever-present threat and he was forced to hawk his drawings for a few shillings or offer them as barter for necessities. In 1897 the family had left Lindsey Row and moved to the Fulham Road, but Walter continued to haunt the river, living in the past. Loneliness was another problem. Neither brother had married, and Henry's death in 1904 left Walter more isolated than ever.
Fate struck a particularly cruel stroke in 1911. William Marchant, the proprietor of the Goupil Gallery in Regent Street, where Whistler himself had exhibited in the past, acquired a large collection of Walter's paintings and etchings through another dealer. They included the artist's early masterpiece, Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day. Marchant decided to mount an exhibition, promoting Greaves as a forgotten follower of Whistler, and this he did with entrepreneurial flair. Walter seemed to be on the brink of securing recognition at last. Critics vied with one another in their praises, and leading artists - William Nicholson, Augustus John and Walter Sickert among them - lent their support to the idea that Marchant had discovered an 'unknown master' of enormous talent. It was even claimed by some that Walter was a greater artist than Whistler, and may have influenced him rather than the other way round. The fact that Walter had inadvertently dated a painting of Old Battersea Bridge 1862, long before Whistler had painted his famous version of the subject, seemed to confirm these arguments. Eventually matters got completely out of hand, especially when the subject was aired in the American press under such headings as 'Whistler Dethroned', 'Was this Artist Whistler's Ghost?' and 'Casting Whistler in the Shade'. Walter was relentlessly interviewed, and photographed in his best clothes against Chelsea landmarks. The exhibition itself was crowded, and most of the work was sold. Although it no longer belonged to Walter, Marchant made him a generous allowance and set him up in a studio almost next door to the Goupil Gallery.
But no one had reckoned with Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell, Whistler's biiographers and the self-appointed guardians of the master's reputation. Despite the fact that Walter had given them valuable information when they were writing their memoir, they now appeared like avenging furies, proving conclusively that the painting of Old Battersea Bridge was much later than 1862, and that other paintings had also been mistakenly dated by Walter long after they were painted. The implication was clear; Walter was not the genius it was claimed, and certainly not in any sense Whistler's mentor. Marchant was forced to admit that mistakes had been made, but for the vindictive Pennells this was not enough. They seemed bent on discrediting Walter in every way possible, even claiming that the best work in the show was not by him at all but by Whistler. They also pursued their vendetta in America, rubbishing the exhibition when it was shown at the Cottier Gallery, New York, the following year.
The furore over the Goupil exhibition left Walter as bewildered as his rejection by Whistler had done in the 1880s. He sank back once again into obscurity, but at least he was now on the map and fellow artists such as John, Sickert and Clausen kept an eye on him and ensured that he was never again in such dire straits as before the exhibition. A Royal Academy annual pension of £50, awarded at Clausen's instigation, gave Walter particular pleasure, as did the purchase of Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day for the Chantrey Bequest in 1922. The same year Walter was admitted in the Charterhouse, as a poor brother, and there he died a the age of eighty-four in 1930 - a poignant end for a man whom Sickert, in an article written at the height of the Goupil imbroglio, had described as 'a great master' whose Hammersmith Bridge was 'a staggerer'. As he looked at the picture, Sickert wrote, 'the only thing it reminds me of is Carpaccio...Its perfect naîveté results in the purest art.'