Born on 25 October 1802 in Arnold, Nottingham, his mother a teacher, his father successively a gaoler, a drawing master and a lace-maker. In 1817 he moved with his parents to Calais where F. L. T. Francia encouraged him to paint coast scenes in watercolour. In 1818 the family moved to Paris where Bonington made watercolour copies of Dutch and Flemish landscapes in the Louvre. In 1820 he became a pupil of Baron Gros in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; he was then remembered as reading medieval histories. From 1821 he undertook regular sketching tours in Normandy.
Bonington showed two watercolours in the 1822 Salon, and in 1824, when his exhibits included three oil seascapes, he was awarded a gold medal. In the summer of 1825, with his friend Armand Cohn, he came to London where he met up with Delacroix. Together they sketched armour in the collection of Sir Samuel Meyrick (much of which is now in the Wallace Collection).
In January 1826 Bonington exhibited for the first time in London, two coast scenes in oil at the British Institution. His small-scale works were eagerly sought by dealers and private collectors. Whilst on a visit to London for treatment he died on 23 September 1828 from consumption.