Monday, January 24, 2011

Harsh -- Piling On Post-Mortem -- Walter Greaves


Walter Greaves, Old Battersea Bridge, 1874


      I first recall hearing that word used as a "youth expletive" watching the great Graduation Day 2 episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer some years ago when (as I recall) Buffy saw her ridiculous martinet high school principal stomped to death by a demon during an interrupted, apocalyptic Commencement ceremony.

     "Harsh" came to mind again a few days ago when I read about the Rosenbach Library’s decision to deaccession thirteen works by the 19th-20th century English painter Walter Greaves (1846-1930) from its permanent collection.

Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, ca. 1800

      Deaccessioning, for those who don’t know, is “the term museums use to describe the permanent removal, by sale or by gift, of items from their collections. There are two essential parts of deaccessioning: making the decision in the first place, and then allocating the proceeds.”  (This description comes from the fine and enjoyable online art journal, which I highly recommend for its news articles and, especially, its terrific pictures.)

Walter Greaves, Portrait of Whistler, date unknown

      Artdaily's piece, published on January 20, announcing the Greaves painting dump, then reprints a "text" (why not just say "press release"?) published by the Rosenbach’s director, Derick Dreher, describing in dreary, self-righteous, self-congratulatory and conclusory terms “the best standards and practices”  the museum used in making their pruning decision and their non-specific allocation-of-proceeds plan, and explaining in detail to a largely uninterested, disinterested world  the "deaccession process".

      (Two notes, or rather two questions, for the reader:  1. Don’t you absolutely loathe the term “best practices”?  I am told that it was actually coined by a member of my college graduating class -- someone I didn't know well -- who went on after business school to make a vast fortune consulting and implementing “best practices” solutions at feckless enterprises that didn't know better, who then imposed them on powerless, bored-to-tears, intellectually worn down employees; 2.  Aren't you glad that the Rosenbach trustees weren't your parents, didn't have access to your personal assets and weren't able to deaccession you?)

      That "text", if you are interested, follows here.

Walter Greaves, Clock Tower At Dusk, 1867

      My interest in the Greaves tale was first piqued by the Greaves painting from the Rosenbach collection displayed immediately above, Clock Tower At Dusk, and the fact that the Rosenbach is a local Philadelphia institution.  But what really held my interest and made me extremely sad was learning that this was another unhappy chapter -- post-mortem this time -- in the unfairly checkered career of Walter Greaves, a man who had already, I believe, suffered sufficient abuse and harm at the hands of the powerful, the toadying and the coarse. 

      Greaves, I learned, began life as part of a family of Thames River boat builders and watermen living and working along Cheyne Walk on the Chelsea banks in London.  Greave’s father, Charles William Greaves, had actually been J.M.W. Turner’s personal Thames boatman.  Turner also lived on Cheyne Walk, which over the years has been home to a great many celebrated native Londoners and famous explatriates.

4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, 1861 (briefly the home of George Eliot)

      In 1863, Walter Greaves, along with his brother Henry, first met the American painter James Abbot McNeill Whistler in London and became his personal boatmen, river guides, protégés and studio assistants.  Whistler’s water sojourns with the Greaves brothers inspired his remarkable and celebrated river “nocturne” paintings of the Thames at night.

      "He taught us to paint", Walter Greaves said, "and we taught him the waterman's jerk".

Walter Greaves, Boat Race Day, 1862

      In time Whistler, motivated by a variety of factors, none of which are particularly flattering in terms of his personal character, ceased associating with the working class Greaveses.  Walter, in the meantime, had established himself as a painter of some reputation.  But this enforced, cutting exclusion from Whistler’s circle and the unkind acts and words from some of Whistler’s associates harmed Greaves' career, which went into eclipse until he was “rediscovered” in 1911 by the gallery owner Williiam Marchant of the Goupil Galleries, London, who mounted an important  Greaves "revival" exhibition.

      Several weeks after that show opened, however, Whistler’s biographers, the London-based expatriate Philadelphia lithographer and etcher Joseph Pennell and his wife,  Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, who had used Greaves extensively as a source for their popular contemporary James A.M. Whistler biography, created a scandal by attacking Greaves in print and otherwise, accusing him of being not only a Whistler plagiarist, but also a person guilty of backdating some of his own works in order to make it appear as though he influenced Whistler, rather than the other way around.

Walter Greaves, James Abbot McNeill Whistler On The Widow's Walk At His House In Lindsey Row, date unknown

      Although it is true that some misdating seems to have occurred, whether by design or through the artist's poor record-keeping practices, malicious or self-interested motivation in this regard is by no means clear and has never been conclusively established.  I believe, however, that whatever rank you assign to Greaves as a painter, although he is not the master Whistler was, his works have their own charm and place in the world, and Greaves appears to have been seriously victimized both by the unkindness of strangers and some of his professional acquaintances.

      Walter Greaves enjoyed some brief later moments of success, including a 1922 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition organized by Augustus John and William Rothenstein, as well as the support of English painter Walter Sickert.  Election as an honorary member to the Chelsea Arts Club also brightened his later days and burnished what remained of his reputation.

      When Greaves died of pneumonia in 1930 as a longtime Poor Fellow of London's Charterhouse, however, he was deeply unhappy, very poor and largely forgotten.

Walter Greaves, Etched Self-Portrait, 1900

      The Rosenbach Library can do (and has done) anything it pleases, but the tale it composed and  published detailing its Greaves purge and recounting museum founder/art dealer Philip H. Rosenbach’s unsuccessful financial and, in their view, aesthetic decision to purchase thirteen Greaves paintings 80 years ago (presumably because he regarded them as works of quality), which are now being deaccessioned by his distant minions, is a nastily told story that makes the museum and its trustees seem like small people, rather than laudable and responsible cultural custodians of estimable holdings and a great heritage.  I tell myself it's a zeitgeist thing.  The geist will pass as soon as the zeit does.

Charterhouse, London, 1770 engraving by Toms.

      Several Greaves paintings are illustrated here for your perusal, consideration and, I hope, enjoyment.  Soon some of these thirteen free agency artworks will come on the market at Christie’s at popular prices.

       I may purchase one.

London Blue Plaque at 41 Cheyne Walk, house occupied both by Walter Greaves and Hillaire Belloc (at different periods)


  1. A beautiful thoroughgoing tribute, Curtis.

    "Deaccessioning" is such a cold, cruel term, even worse than "accessioning" (said he, surrounded by cobwebbed stacks of forever-to-be-unaccessioned oeuvres).

    That little watercolour of Cheyne Walk reminds me a bit of Rowlandson.

    (C. 1963-64 a friend had digs in Cheyne Walk, before "improvements", and I spent many a night there, back in that buried geological epoch...)

  2. On J.M.W.Turner and Chelsea see Selby Whittingham, "Mrs Booth of Margate", 1996.

  3. Tom: Thanks so much. I simply found the tone of the Rosenbach story infuriating. I knew a couple of these paintings in the distant past, but had completely forgotten (if I ever knew) Greaves' history. I'm very glad you enjoyed the piece.

    Dr. Whittingham: Thank you very much for your note. I look forward to reading "Mrs. Booth of Margate".


  4. Lovely piece, C.

    More specifics on where Greaves fans can scoop these up:

    Four of the pictures (two urban nocturnes and two Whistler potraits, including the one illustrated above standing on Widow's Walk) are for sale at Christie's New York on February 8th. The estimates on the landscapes are preposterously low.

  5. Roddy: I'm really pleased you liked this. Writing it was a real act of unburdening for me. Everything about the Greaves/Rosenbach story was irritating. Thanks for the auction info. I will check this out and, if possible, try to attend. Owning the Whistler portrait (which isn't likely to happen) sounds like fun. By then, I hope to see no snow anywhere. Curtis

  6. I like the Clock Tower at Dusk. I didn't read or follow this deaccessioning story but I do know that process often upsets people a lot and these days I suppose it's happening more often. A side note, I used to practise matting and framing Joseph Pennell's prints when I first started working at the art museum in college because we had so many in the print collection and my curator/boss didn't worry about me learning on Pennell. ha ha. Later the cost of mat board went up but by then I had the hang of it and had moved on to some real treasures. Let me know what you get at the auction.

  7. Hi Anne. I will attend the auction if I can make it to NYC that day. I plan to go if I'm not tied up on some legal work because I would like to see the Greaves works for myself. Fascinating about your Pennell connection. I like the Clock Tower At Dusk also; in fact, I like all of the Greaves works with the exception of the first Whistler portrait, but I might change my mind about that one (or all of them) once I see them. In any event, the story just made me angry because it combined a lack of feeling with a pretentious attitude. Also, the cold is getting to me/us. Hope all is well. We would love to see you soon. Curtis