Walter Greaves was born in London in 1846, the son of a boat builder and waterman. He initially trained as a boat builder with his brother, Henry, until they met Whistler in the 1860's, becoming his studio assistants, pupils and close friends for over twenty years. Greaves early works show him as a master of primitive art, but his later works demonstrate the influence of Whistler's teachings. Much of his work provides a fascinating record of 19th Century Chelsea.
By the late 1870's Greaves was gradually excluded from Whistler's circle of friends and suffered years of neglect and misfortune until his discovery by William Marchant, proprietor of the Goupil Galleries, who exhibited his work in his London gallery in 1911 and 1922.
Greaves also exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and in the provinces. His work is represented in collections including the Tate Gallery, and recent exhibitions have been held at the Parkin Gallery in 1980 and 1984.