Walter Greaves: postcards and photographs

Monochrome photographs of paintings are unsatisfactory in most cases. In my travels through archives and reference stores I have come across many old art books full of black and white images which have been superseded by later colour versions. So perhaps you could forgive me if, many years back, I dismissed a small collection of photographs of Greaves paintings because  they were “only black and white”. Some of them were postcard size, and a group of larger ones had begun to deteriorate with age, but now I look at them and find them quite interesting. In addition, modern software enables me to mess about with them.

This first image though, comes from a modern postcard I acquired for myself along the way, and it’s quite striking.



Circus performers and mountebanks, as Greaves puts it. The same troupe is seen below, adding a sensational element to an ordinary day in riverside Chelsea. the giant figure and the performers bring an element of folk horror to this urban territory. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is the old Chelsea, a slightly down at heel riverside neighbourhood, somewhat dilapidated.



But as well as the working riverside this part of Chelsea was home to other entertainments.

In the background of this picture, another spectacle – the Female Blondin, crossing the river on a tightrope. We’ve covered this before in this post.



Tom Pocock suggests in Chelsea Reach that the tightrope artist, Lucy Young later became the wife of Walter’s older brother George. This is a more realistic view of the crossing than the etching seen in the old post, which gave the impression there were huge numbers of boats in the water. Miss Young had to abandon the walk part  way through when the ropes became slack but she returned later and completed a two way walk.  She was unlucky when she fell at Highbury Barn a year afterwards. Pocock reports that she was “crippled” but also notes that in marrying George she had returned to “the scene of her greatest Triumph.”

After which, with the Greaves family season ticket to Cremorne she could engage in more sedate pursuits. Here are two more views of the Gardens, in daylight,



And in the evening.



In a ghostly light.

Below, the deconstruction of the old Battersea Bridge and the construction of the new version.




Both Greaves, and his mentor Whistler preferred the old to the new and continued to dwell on “old Chelsea”, which was not even part of London to many of its inhabitants. Dickens, although he was married at St Lukes and was a friend of the Carlyle family called it “barbarous Chelsea”. Speaking of the “sage of Chelsea”,



Although neither Walter nor Henry were very skilled at drawing figures, they did like to enliven their pictures with a few figures. like this one of the man himself, almost a tourist attraction in his own right.

Female figures were often of one of their sisters, Eliza, Emily or the youngest, Alice.



The Strange shop, a general merchant and grocers is also seen in some of the photographs by James Hedderly. (Strange’s is one of the shops in this image.) As a professional sign writer he often provided painting materials to the Greaves brothers and Whistler. I have corresponded with a descendant of Mr Strange.

This older woman could also be Alice, pale and enigmatic on an otherwise deserted riverside, before the Embankment.


I wonder if her dress quite matches the pre-embankment period? The dating or Greaves paintings is sometimes questionable.

The picture below is Eliza Greaves, wearing a Tudor style outfit, in a picture called the Green Dress.



I used a green filter on the image, which also works well on other pictures like the Balcony, one of Walter’s best compositions.



And even the bowling green at the rear of the King’s Head and Six Bells. (Not to be confused with the King’s Head and Eight Bells which is in the Hedderly photo. This King’s Head was on the King’s Road, and was later the home of a jazz club.)



The two figures below could be Walter and Alice heading homeward.



These two definitely are.the siblings Alice’s parasol was actually pink so I’ve given a slightly red tinge to the image.



It’s not in particularly good condition. You can see signs of chemical deterioration around the edge.

This photograph of Walter is also showing signs of age.



But it does catch a something of his character, a diffident man who was nevertheless possessed by the desire to paint, and bring the old Chelsea back to a modern world.


I couldn’t leave Greaves with just one post, but next time, although we’ll still be by the river, you’ll see a more vigorous and colourful version of Chelsea.

Another postscript

I was thinking that now I’m back to regular posting I should be looking out for deaths, which was an occasional part of the blog but there was nothing I’d noticed recently. Then as soon as I looked at Twitter today I saw something about David Roback, who died on Monday of this week. He was the guitarist of Mazzy Star, a group who have rather faded  into the background. I realised that I owned all four of their albums as well as a couple by their singer Hope Sandoval. They had a unique sound which I shall not attempt to put into words. My MP3 player still plays me Fade into You, a flash of languid brightness on a dull day.

13 responses to “Walter Greaves: postcards and photographs

  • iChristopher John Pain

    Welcome back to Chelsea Dave! Quite a few pictures I hadn’t seen before in this and last week’s posts.
    As regards the Female Blondin, Tom Pocock wrote that Charles Greaves Junior, Walter and Henry’s elder brother, married a Lucy Young in 1864. This much is correct. The only problem is that the tightrope walker’s name, according to all contemporary accounts, was Selina Young. Selina married Edward Charles Drew in Newington in 1865 and wrote the following letter to the Telegraph in 1871.

    It seems likely that Tom Pocock got the name Lucy from Christian Brinton’s Walter Greaves (pupil of Whistler) published in 1912, where it states in passing that the Female Blondin was named Lucy Young, without making any association with Charles Greaves’ wife. Then in 1970 Tom Pocock must have put two and two together.
    Later, in 1981, Thomas M. Disch and Charles Naylor, in their fictionalised account of the Chelsea embankment dwellers in the mid-1800s, Neighbouring Lives, retell Pocock’s story, adding the detail that Lucy Young was the Greaves’ next door neighbour, who hones her tightrope walking skills in the back garden while the Greaves boys look on admiringly.
    The real Selina Young had been born into a fairground and circus family and had trained as an acrobat from a young age. She had no particular association with Chelsea apart from her feat at Cremorne in 1861.

  • iChristopher John Pain

    Sorry the link doesn’t work. I’ll try a different method:

  • iChristopher John Pain

    I don’t think the Six Bells was ever the King’s Head and Six Bells, just the Six Bells. It is said to date back, in another building, to at least 1722.

    • Dave Walker

      Yes this may be a case of an odd inaccuracy which lodged in my mind so many years ago that I didn’t think to check. Sorry to all fans of historical accuracy.
      As to the female Blondin you’ll have noticed that I deliberately attribute this factoid to Pocock rather than repeat it as true. It sounds too good to be true, and apparently it is. But like Disch and Naylor I wish it had been true. (I must have another look at Neighbouring Lives – Disch was a fascinating character in his own right and also wrote one of the classics of modern SF – Camp Concentration) Thanks for continuing to follow the blog.

  • Chris Cat

    The pub was indeed just called the Six Bells. The other one was on the Embankment.
    A school friend lived in Chelsea and her dad worked for what was the Gas Board at the time, mid 1960s. One day he was called to the Six Bells to some sort of gas problem there. The pub had a rather low key stripper performing there once a week at lunchtime. Yes, really!

    The Gas Board employees (mostly male engineers) at that time had some sort of uniform, which included a navy raincoat, which he happened to be wearing that day. My friend’s dad, having finished the assignment he’d been sent on, was on his way out and to him, the obvious way was through the pub, but unfortunately he somehow ended up going via the stripper’s performance. He appeared behind her, in his navy raincoat, and the punters naturally thought he was part of the performance.The mind boggles at what they thought he was going to do as part of it. My friend’s dad had a particularly sunny nature and his whole face would break into a beaming smile at any opportunity, and thus, more from complete disbelief and horror at where he found himself than anything else, he treated all who were watching the stripper (and him, by this time) to one of his finest all encompassing beams.

    Having realised what had happened, dying of embarrassment and discomfort, but still with his beaming smile, shyly tip-toed away and out. I think the stripper, gallant to the last, carried on regardless.

    As a pub postscript,, there were, at one time a total of 19 if I’ve counted correctly, along the whole length of King’s Road. There are now just two still as original pubs, the others having been turned into gastro eateries, eateries of some other type, or shut altogether and replaced with something else. I think the Trafalgar, although having been bulldozed with the Habitat and cinema site, has plans to be reopened eventually.

  • cyclops lester

    Old photographs of Greaves paintings are better than original (contemp) photographs.
    Your correspondent ref. Six Bells, probably remembers the improbability of telephones on every table, as if the patrons were being encouraged to be punters! The nearby Trafalgar, at one period, resorted to female entertainment – in a time before Waitrose became its neighbour.

  • Ruth Beaty

    Thanks for this article, I had just been doing some reading about him and his art recently and this helps add more to information about him!

  • Eileen Milton

    I was particularly interested in the photograph showing The Strange shop as I have a connection by marriage to the family. Charlotte Strange (nee Horn) was the sister-in-law of my ancestor William Hall who was licensed victualler of The Rising Sun in nearby Lombard Street. I note that you have corresponded with a descendant of the family. I wonder if it would be possible to put me in touch with this person so we could exchange information. I have many mentions of the Strange family in a diary written in the mid-late 19th century.

  • Karen White

    A fascinating series of photographs and postcards.

  • Dr. Julia King

    Very interesting particularly because I have a Walter Greaves painting.

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