Born on 8 November 1785 in Cults, Fifeshire, he first studied in Edinburgh before coming to London in 1805. His earlier work was much in the manner of Teniers (and was mocked as the 'Pauper Style').
He exhibited at the Royal Academy, London 1806-25 and 1829-41, being elected Associate Royal Academician, London 1809 and Royal Academician 1811. He visited France in 1814 and 1821, and in 1825-8 he made a convalescent tour on the Continent which included a period in Madrid. Thereafter he adapted a looser, more dramatic style, influenced by Rembrandt and seventeenth-century Spanish painting.
In 1830 he was appointed Principal Painter to the King, and he was knighted in 1836. In 1840 he visited the Holy Land, but died at sea on his return voyage, an event memorably described by Turner in his Peace: Burial at Sea (Tate Gallery).