Thursday, 25 February 2021

Walter Greaves

 This dejected fellow is Walter Greaves, painted by William Nicholson in 1917. Greaves, by this stage of his life, had some reason to feel dejected. A Thames waterman and boat builder, one of a family of watermen (his father had been J.M.W. Turner's boatman), he lived on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, when it was nothing like the millionaire's row it is now, and in 1863 he became friends with another Chelsea habitu√©, James McNeill Whistler. Greaves, who knew the river like the back of his hand, became Whistler's boatman, studio assistant and pupil. It was thanks to Greaves taking him out on the river and showing what it had to offer that Whistler was inspired to paint his great Thames nocturnes and create his etchings of riverside scenes. And thanks to Whistler, Greaves too began to paint and draw, trying his hand at portraits and scenes of Chelsea life. Among the Chelsea notables he painted was Thomas Carlyle – a curiously bland portrait, but not bad (Carlyle's character always showed most vividly in photographs).

Greaves was more convincing when his subjects were the riverside scenes he knew so well. Here he had clearly learnt well from Whistler... 

Sadly, Greaves's career went into decline as Whistler ascended through society and spent more time abroad. After years of poverty and neglect, Greaves was rescued from obscurity by a gallery owner, William Marchant, who mounted an exhibition in 1911, but this was quickly overshadowed by claims from Whistler's biographers that Greaves had plagiarised his teacher. Eleven years later, another exhibition was organised, by William Nicholson, Augustus John and Will Rothenstein, but Greaves fell back into obscurity and spent his last years as a Poor Brother at the Charterhouse. 
   In the days of their friendship, Greaves painted and drew Whistler several times. This portrait catches him rather well...


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