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)

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