Wilson was the first British artist to paint classical landscapes, inspired by the work of Claude Lorraine and Gaspard Dughet. He was born in Wales, but moved to London to train with Thomas Wright, an established portrait painter. Wilson's early paintings were portraits, but he turned to landscape subjects during his seven years in Italy, where he was based in Rome. On his return to London in 1757 his paintings of idealised British and Italian scenes were well received. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768 and although he died impoverished, influenced future generations of British landscape painters.