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The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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23rd November 2003 - Death of a Boatman

Walter Greaves was the son of Charles William Greaves, a Chelsea boat-builder and waterman. He and his brother Henry met 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 admired Whistler greatly and rapidly began to imitate him in his own paintings. As a painter and etcher, Walter was primarily concerned with the London city- and riverscape. His early works show a naive realism, while his later nocturnes, drawings and etchings display the influence of Whistler. He also executed many drawings and paintings of the famous artist. Unfortunately though, Walter spent many years in neglect and poverty, but was re-discovered by William Marchant, proprietor of the Goupil Galleries, who put on an exhibition of his work in 1911. However, he fell once again into obscurity, and the final eight years of his life were spent as a Poor Brother of the Charterhouse.

In a letter from Whistler to the art dealer D. C. Thompson on 24 October 1895, Whistler recalls the Greaves brothers:

"When I first went to Chelsea they were boys, the sons of Greaves the well know boat builder - my neighbour in Linsay [sic] Row -

"They were more my pupils than any one else has ever been - and full of talent -

"But for years and years I have seen nothing - So I dont know how they have turned out -

"All my good or bad influence they may have got rid of - but certainly I shall stand by them - for at least they seem to be loyal - [...]

"It is a dangerous thing to be a pupil of Whistler - and before now I have found that the "influence" of that curious master was of the most ephemeral kind!! - I really have brought up no pupil - that is I am responsable [sic] for the work of no one - but - Walter & Harry Greaves make an exception partly - that is to say they had no other master - they were at one time always in my studio - where they learnt everything they knew -"

(LCMS Pennell-Whistler Collection)

Walter Greaves died on this day in 1930.