Orchardson was an outstanding narrative painter, who deftly used body language and expression, as well as descriptive detail, to communicate feelings and mood. He was also a gifted portraitist. As a mature student of the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, he joined other talented students of Robert Scott Lauder, with whom he formed life-long and mutually inspiring friendships. In 1862 he moved to London where he shared a house and studio with fellow student John Pettie. His large, meticulous paintings of historical and contemporary subjects were much admired. In 1877 he was elected a Royal Academician and in 1907 knighted.