Born on 23 April 1775 in London, the son of a barber. In 1789 he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy, London where he was to exhibit from 1790 to 1850, being elected Associate Royal Academician, London 1799, Royal Academician 1802 and Professor of Perspective 1807-37.
He was a constant traveller in Great Britain, France, Switzerland and Italy in search of landscape effects and the sketches he then made are preserved in some 260 sketch books in the British Museum, part of the Turner Bequest to the Nation of all the works which remained in his possession at his death. He first visited Yorkshire in 1797 and 1801; in 1809 he met Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall, near Otley, where he stayed almost annually until 1824. The Yorkshire landscape was an inspiration for him; from it he took not only many generally topographical views but also ideas for historical subjects, such as Hannibal crossing the Alps (Royal Academy, London 1812; Tate Gallery). The imaginative richness of his later landscapes remains without compare in English painting.
He died in London on 19 December 1851, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.