William Pyne, the second son of John Pyne (1727–1794), a weaver, and Mary Craze, was born in London on 21st April 1769. He showed great talent as a artist and his father sent him for instruction at the drawing school of Henry Pars. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to William Sharp.
Pyne's biographer, Harris Myers, has pointed out: "Pyne developed quickly a great facility for drawing and at the age of sixteen was inspired by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg to introduce into his works realistic groups of figures and animals following some characteristic occupation." Critics have claimed that he was influenced by the work of Thomas Rowlandson.
Pyne first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790. He submitted three watercolours, Travelling Comedians, Bartholomew Fair, and A Puppet Show. He also began working with the successful London publisher, Rudolf Ackermann.Their first collaboration, Book with Groups of Figures for Decorating Landscapes appeared in 1798.
In 1804 he was one of the four artists who originated the idea of founding the Society of Painters in Water Colours. The following year the publisher, William Miller, commissioned him to write and illustrate The Costume of Great Britain. The book included 60 full-page paintings of professional and working-class men and women and scenes from everyday life.
In 1808 the publisher, Rudolf Ackermann began his most ambitious venture, The Microcosm of London. Completed in 1810 it contained 104 large folio hand-coloured aquatints. William Pyne wrote the text and helped Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin with the illustrations. Other work for Ackermann included Cottages and Farm Houses in England and Wales (1815).
As well as book illustrations, Pyne wrote for several journals such as the Literary Gazette, Arnold's Magazine of the Fine Arts, the Library of the Fine Arts, and Fraser's Magazine. He also established his own weekly magazine, Somerset House Gazette. However, it was discontinued after a year.
Pyne was not a successful businessman and in 1828 he was imprisoned in King's Bench Prison for debt. His friends arranged for him to be released and this enabled him to work on History of the Royal Residences (1829) and Lancashire Illustrated (1831). However, in 1835, he was once again confined in the debtors' prison.
As the author of William Henry Pyne and His Microcosm (1998) has pointed out: "Though long popular, Pyne had become an obscure, almost forgotten figure at the time of his death from apoplexy at 2 a.m. on 29 May 1843 at Pickering Place, Paddington, Middlesex, after a long illness.".