Hamerton was born on September 10, 1834 in Shaw and Crompton, England. His mother, Anne Cocker, died giving birth to him, and his father, John Hamerton, a lawyer, died ten years later. When he was about five, he was sent to live with his two aunts at an estate called the Hollins on the edge of Burnley.
Hamerton was educated privately under the direction of his guardians.
Hamerton's first literary attempt, a volume of poems, proving unsuccessful, he devoted himself for a time entirely to landscape painting, encamping out of doors in the Highlands, where he eventually rented the island of Innistrynych, upon which he settled with his wife, a French lady, in 1858. Discovering after a time that his qualifications were rather those of an art critic than of a painter he removed to the neighbourhood of his wife's relatives in France, where he produced his Painter's Camp in the Highlands (1863), which obtained a great success and prepared the way for his standard work on Etching and Etchers (1866). In the following year he published a book, entitled Contemporary French Painters, and in 1868 a continuation, Painting in France after the Decline of Classicism. He had meanwhile become art critic to the Saturday Review, a position which, from the burden it laid upon him of frequent visits to England, he did not long retain. He proceeded (1870) to establish an art journal of his own, The Portfolio, a monthly periodical, each number of which consisted of a monograph upon some artist or group of artists, frequently written and always edited by him. The discontinuance of his active work as a painter gave him time for more general literary composition, and he successively produced The Intellectual Life (1873), perhaps the best known and most valuable of his writings; Round my House (1876), notes on French society by a resident; and Modern Frenchmen (1879), admirable short biographies. He also wrote two novels, Wenderholme (1870) and Marmorne (1878). In 1884 Human Intercourse, another valuable volume of essays, was published, and shortly afterwards Hamerton began to write his autobiography, which he brought down to 1858. In 1882 he issued a finely illustrated work on the technique of the great masters of various arts, under the title of The Graphic Arts, and three years later another splendidly illustrated volume. Landscape, which traces the influence of landscape upon the mind of man. His last books were: Portfolio Papers (1889) and French and English (1889). In 1891 he removed to the neighbourhood of Paris, and died suddenly on the 4th of November 1894, occupied to the last with his labours on The Portfolio and other writings on art.