ART / Sold down the river: When Whistler took on a Thames boatman as a pupil, it looked like inspired charity. A new show isn't so sure

IN A show that's typical of a gallery loved by both connoisseurs and bohemians, Michael Parkin offers a tantalising view of the work of Walter Greaves. As usual, Parkin has many rare drawings and etchings on his walls, not all of them framed, and at surprisingly low prices. And he exhibits one treasure. Here is Greaves's Nocturne, Old Battersea Bridge, it's just a foot square and painted in shades of grey that suggest ochres, green and blue. The bridge itself gives a firm composition to this atmospheric picture - haunting, but with strength.

It could of course have been painted by James Whistler, and Greaves's relationship to his master is the story of his artistic life. The sad fact is that he was enslaved by Whistler, and as much by the social man as by Whistler the teacher. We know that he had unusual native talent, especially if we believe Greaves's story that he painted the Tate's much-loved Hammersmith Bridge on Boat Race Day when he was 16. Parkin calls it 'the greatest primitive painting produced in England'. Maybe, but I learn from the Tate's conservation department that there has been a 'total repainting of some areas', so its degree of naivety, let alone its date, are undecided. In any case, when Greaves met Whistler there was no longer a chance that he could form his own style; primitive or not.

Artistic talent can come up anywhere. Walter Greaves and his brother Henry (also represented in this show) were Thames boatmen. That is, they built boats, ferried people around, scavenged from the tides, ran watery errands and, I guess, made their income from anything that came their way. Their father had also been in this business, and he had an artistic connection. The elder Greaves had been Turner's boatman in the old painter's final Chelsea days (and when Walter died in 1930 he must have been the last person to remember having seen Turner). So London's river was the family's life but the idea that an ordinary person could be an artist was not unusual to them.

The Greaves boys were drawing by the river one day when Whistler approached them and invited them to his studio. This was around 1860, when he was first in Chelsea. Whistler showed the brothers some drawing and painting techniques. They, in turn, not only did all his odd jobs but introduced him to the life of the river, its quays and taverns, and the entertainments of the neighbourhood.

Whistler's subject matter of Thames bridges and fireworks over the Cremorne pleasure gardens derive from their joint expeditions. The American artist was never precisely a Londoner; but he did have a feeling for the city, and this came from the Greaves family.

No date on any Greaves painting is reliable and Parkin wisely, does not attempt a chronological account of Walter's work. I suppose that in his earlier years as an artist he was a more competent draughtsman than a painter.

The drawing Approach to Old Battersea Bridge, probably from 1871, is a good and sturdy try at his subject. One still feels, as often with Greaves, that it might be better as an etching; the needle having just that bit more authority than the pencil. Authority is lacking in Greaves's first paintings, if we can assume that his portrait of Whistler is an early work. The picture is maladroit, yet something of Whistler's poise has entered his factotum's imagination. Alas, not enough. Sophistication and naivety can't be mixed.

Obviously, Greaves was more cowed when he attempted the portrait of another Chelsea neighbour, Carlyle, who despised art. Here's a picture in which the sitter has frightened his portraitist, and Greaves's painting must have been finished from memory, or from Whistler's portrait of the sage, or from a photograph. I find this daub touching, perhaps because I am one of the few people who read and relish Carlyle. However unlovable, he is a giant of our culture. Only his follower Ruskin had such a sense of the tragedy of the 19th century. And who beside Carlyle dared so much with the medium of English prose? Whistler, who scarcely ever read a book, could stand up to Carlyle. Greaves could not. Nor could he free himself from Whistler's personality. He was better as an artist when most obedient to his master's example. I love the little etchings and drawings of riverside pubs, the Adam and Eve, the Old Swan and the Black Lion. Yet the totally Whistlerian painting of Battersea Bridge is better as art and other paintings like Nocturne, Battersea Reach (apparently of 1917) would be more successful if closer to Greaves's only inspiration.

In my view Whistler was a bad teacher of art: he would not allow the humble Greaves to develop in his own way. Alas, Greaves himself was too modest a man to have taken his own course. Art aside, he imitatedWhistler's personal mannerisms and his style of dress. They were close, in a way, for 20 years. Whistler cut Greaves off when his own social milieu approached high society. Poor Greaves was terribly hurt and never recovered from his dismissal. He hawked drawings around the King's Road for the rest of his life, always miserably poor. Recently, some letters have turned up showing that Whistler continued to take Walter and Henry's sister Alice to his bed for years after he had cast her brothers aside. Parkin has some nice pictures of her. What was her own fate, in later life? I left this exhibition feeling a lot more for the Greaves family and liking Whistler even less than I did before.

Michael Parkin Gallery, 11 Motcomb Street, London SW1 (071-235 8144) to 5 Mar.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?