Whistler in the Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea

WALTER GREAVES (1846-1930) Biography

Whistler in the Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea (England, 1869)

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Watercolour over pencil heightened with white on paper
Signed and dated 1869


22.00cm high
19.00cm wide
(8.66 inches high)
(7.48 inches wide)
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Description / Expertise

Walter Greaves was the son of a Chelsea boat-builder who used to ferry Turner across the river; Walter and his brother Harry also performed the same service for Whistler, and in about 1863 became his unpaid studio assistants and pupils. They adored Whistler, accompanied him wherever he went, imitated his dress and manner, made the frames for his canvases, bought his materials and prepared his colours. Walter said; 'He taught us to paint, and we taught him the waterman’s jerk'. Their close association lasted well into the 1890’s, Whistler favouring Walter as he was the more gifted of the two brothers. Two of his most successful images were Regatta at Hammersmith Bridge and Chelsea under Snow; like Whistler he concentrated on areas around the Thames. He died in poverty, having been taken in by the Charterhouse.

The Cremorne Gardens occupied a large site running between the Thames and the Kings Road. Opened in 1845 they were noisy and colourful pleasure gardens including restaurants, entertainments, dancing and balloon ascents, which could be entered from the north gate on Kings Road or the Cremorne Pier on the river. Whistler and the Greaves family were frequent visitors before the gardens closed in 1877.

Greaves chooses to depict Whistler near the Crystal Platform. A reporter in the Illustrated London News (30 May 1857) admired the structure’s 'inclosing ironwork...enriched, by Defries and Son, with devices in emerald and garnet cut-glass drops, and semicircles of lustre and gas jets, which have a most brilliant effect.' The pavilion was about three hundred and sixty feet in circumference. It was encrusted with ornamental pillars, gas jets, and over forty plate-glass mirrors in black frames. In the upper portion of the pagoda (seen here), where the orchestra played, there were seventeen gas lit chandeliers.

This particular feature of the Gardens was clearly a favourite with Greaves as he chose to depict it on several occasions, for example The Dancing Platform, Cremorne Gardens (1870’s) and in an etching of this period,(1) which depicts the same view as Whistler in the Cremorne Gardens. In the former Whistler is depicted as the natty flaneur, striding along with and yet separate from the crowd. In the latter Whistler is seated but maintains the image of flaneur, the impartial, non-judgmental observer of contemporary life. He leans to one side to acknowledge a fellow dandy, much to the impatience of the young woman who stands at his table. Cremorne Gardens rapidly acquired a reputation as the territory of the demi-monde frequented by women of questionable morals. His associate could buy such a woman; this is implied by his indifference towards her, the attention of the passing woman as well as the undisguised stare of the gentleman at the railing.

It was the familiar sights of the areas around the Thames, which provided the subjects for the majority of Whistler’s Nocturne Series. These were generally wide, unpeopled vistas, but he did paint a series of the popular pleasure gardens at Cremorne in 1872, interestingly this is three years after Greaves’ Whistler in the Cremorne Gardens and ten years after he had moved to Cheyne Walk, a mere few hundred yards from the Gardens. Cremorne Gardens No 2 is full of fashionable and active figures and parallels to some extent the ‘modern life’ paintings of his French associates Manet and Tissot with whom he was in close contact during the early 1870’s. Cremorne Gardens was doubtless a most attractive location not only for its light displays but also for the brilliant array of fashionable people who gathered there. They provided the setting for Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Firewheel and Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket of c. 1874, the latter resulting in the Whistler versus Ruskin trial of 1878.

Whistler himself depicted the platform, which Greaves favoured, filling it with dancers in Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Gardens. But instead of emphasising the decorative details of the platform, he suggests its presence by bright light, which falls from the ironwork and highlights the dresses of the whirling dancers.

1. James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, David Park Curry, (Smithsonian Institute, 1984), page 84, figure 219