John Burnett was born and raised in Fisherrow in Musselburgh, a village just outside Edinburgh. His father George Burnet was the surveyor-general of excise for Scotland. John received some initial artistic training before taking a seven years apprenticeship with the engraver Robert Scott. He remained a keen painter, and attended John Graham’s painting classes at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh. There, his fellow pupils included David Wilkie, Alexander Fraser, John Watson Gordon and William Allan. He was best known as David Wilkie’s favourite reproductive engraver, but he also executed independent genre paintings including maritime and fishing subjects. His work was particularly popular and influential on Scottish art in the first half of the nineteenth century.