Walter Greaves and his brother Henry were the sons of Charles William Greaves, a Chelsea boat-builder and waterman. They had two sisters Eliza and Alice ('Tinnie') Fay who acted as models for them and Whistler. Whistler was particularly fond of the latter.
The Greaves brothers were both apprenticed to their father. However, they 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 and Henry used to attend M. Barthe's life classes at Limerston Street in Chelsea in the company of Whistler, and would also join him on drawing expeditions. 'He taught us to paint, and we taught him the waterman's jerk', declared Walter Greaves. Walter admired Whistler greatly and rapidly began to imitate him in style and manner. However, in the late 1870s Whistler turned his back on Walter in favour of the young artists Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes. Their friendship lasted for about twenty years.
As a painter and etcher, Walter was primarily concerned with the London city and riverscape. His early works show a naive realism, eg. Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day (ca 1862; Tate Britain, London) and Old Battersea Bridge (ca 1863; Private Collection). His later nocturnes, drawings and etchings display the influence of Whistler. He also executed many drawings and paintings of Whistler.
Walter Greaves exhibited in London at the Grosvenor Gallery and the Goupil Galleries, as well as at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and Manchester City Art Gallery.
William Nicholson captures Walter Greaves' dandyish appearance in a portrait in which he is shown in a tail coat standing against a white piano (Manchester City Art Gallery).
However, Walter spent many years in neglect and poverty. He was re-discovered by William Marchant, proprietor of the Goupil Galleries, who put on an exhibition of his work in 1911. The Pennells, however, accused Greaves of plagiarising Whistler's work and he fell once again into obscurity. The final eight years of his life were spent as a Poor Brother of the Charterhouse.
UK census 1881 ; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908 ; Tatlock, R. R., 'Walter Greaves', Burlington Magazine, vol. 58, 1931, pp. 261-62; Steen, Marguerite, William Nicholson, London, 1943; Pocock, T., Walter Greaves 1846-1930, London, 1967; Ingamells, J,. 'Greaves and Whistler', Apollo, vol. 89, 1969, pp. 224-25; Pocock, T., Chelsea Reach: The Brutal Friendship of Whistler and Walter Greaves , London, 1970; Wood, Christopher, Dictionary of Victorian Artists, Woodbridge, 1971; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; Johnson, J., and Anna Gruetzner, Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940, Woodbridge, 1980; Walter Greaves and the Goupil Gallery, sale catalogue, Parkin Gallery, London, 1984; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 ; Parkin, Parkin, 'Walter Greaves', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy.