Walter Greaves is well known for his landscapes and river scenes. He was the son of a Chelsea boat-builder who used to ferry JMW Turner across the River Thames. Walter and his brother Harry Greaves also performed this service for James Abbott MacNeil Whistler, and in about 1863 became his unpaid studio assistants and pupils. They adored Whistler, and accompanied him wherever he went, imitated his dress and manner, made the frames for his canvases, bought his materials and prepared his pigments. Their close friendship lasted well into the 1890’s.
Whistler favoured Walter, for he was a gifted draughtsman. He had painted and drawn memorable views of the Thames at Chelsea long before they had met and these works are now considered by many to be the greatest primitive painting produced in England. Under the spell of Whistler, Greaves’s work changed significantly. His drawings reveal an enforced sophistication, much like Whistler’s own. When Greaves fell into poverty in his old age, he tore the canvases from their frames to use them as firewood. Some of these abandoned canvases were so alike Whistler’s they were mistaken for his own.