John Sell Cotman was born in Norwich, England, in May 1782. His father, Edmund, was a prosperous lace dealer and silk merchant. Cotman was educated at the Norwich School, where he already showed a keen talent for art and frequently went out on drawing trips into the near countryside.
His father's intent was to steer him into the family business. However, Cotman's mind was already set in a career in art, so he moved to London in 1798, where he initially made a living through commissions from print-sellers.
He would come under the patronage of the distinguished physician Dr. Thoman Monro, who also was an avid art collector and whose house was a studio as well as a meeting place for artists. There Cotman made acquaintances with many influential British artists, such as Thomas Girtin, Peter de Wint, and the highly distinguished William Turner. Girtin became an essential and prominent figure in Cotman's artistic development, they participated in a sketching club started by the former, often going on drawing trips to Surrey and Wales.
In 1800, Cotman exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy, showing one scene of Harlech Castle and five scenes of Surrey. In the same year, the artist also received an honorary palette, awarded by the Society of Arts. Cotman continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1806 when he went on several extended sketching trips throughout England and Wales.
During a period, Cotman supported himself and his family by teaching art. As one of his methods, the artist made available a library of watercolors for his students to take home and copy. Many of his artworks show numbers regarding such a process. After returning to Norwich, his sustain came mainly from teaching art. He published his first set of etchings in 1811, most of the subjects were architectural, mostly depicting buildings in Yorkshire.
Between 1812 and 1823, Cotman established himself on the coast at Great Yarmouth, where he would study the ships thoroughly and master the waveforms. Cotman returned once more to Norwich in 1824, aiming to improve his financial situation. In the following year, the artist became a Royal Society of Painters in Watercolors associate and exhibited there frequently. However, despite his recognition and respected position, Cotman was driven to despair, due to constant financial difficulties.
In 1834, Cotman became Master of Landscape Drawing at the King's College School in London, helped by a recommendation of J.M.W. Turner. Two of his sons also became artists of notice, John Joseph and Miles Edmund Cotman.
John Sell Cotman died in May 1842, in London.