Bonington was born in Arnold, near Nottingham, on 25 October 1802, the only child of Richard Bonington and Eleanor Parks. Nothing is known of his schooling, but he is reputed to have been skilled at drawing from a young age and to have loved acting. In 1817, as a result of the social unrest affecting business following the introduction of the factory system into the Nottingham lace and hosiery industries, the Boningtons emigrated to France and set up a lace manufactory in Calais, moving to Paris the following year. Bonington learned the art of watercolor painting, his response to nature, and a taste for coastal scenes from Louis Francia, a native of Calais, who had worked for sixteen years in England; he studied in the atelier of Baron Gros at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, from 1819 to 1822, where he was taught precision drawing.
In 1821 Bonington made an extended tour of Normandy in the company of a fellow student, Alexandre-Marie Colin, and exhibited at two Paris dealers watercolors that were admired by Corot, Delacroix, and Gros himself. He first exhibited at the Salon in 1822. Bonington toured Belgium in 1823 and spent much of 1824 at Dunkirk, exhibiting his first oils at the Salon that year. In 1825 he visited London, where he studied the Meyrick collection of armor together with Delacroix, whose studio he shared for several months on his return to France.
Bonington traveled in Italy for eleven weeks in 1826 with Baron Rivet, a wealthy patron whom he had met through Delacroix, spending a month in Venice where he worked with feverish energy. The rest of his short life was taken up with handling a mounting pressure of work, much it commissioned, in the face of increasing weakness induced by tuberculosis. At the end of 1827 he moved from his studio in the house of Jules-Robert Auguste, a wealthy collector of oriental costume and armor, to a larger one in the rue Saint Lazare. Bonington made visits to London to see his dealers in 1827 and 1828, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts in both years and first showing his courtly history subjects there and and at the Salon in 1828. Obliged by ill health to cancel a summer sketching trip in Normandy with Paul Huet, he later returned to London and died there on 23 September 1828.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 19-21.]
Dubuisson, A. and C. E. Hughes. Richard Parkes Bonington. London, 1924.
Spencer, Marion L. R. P. Bonington 1802-1828. Exh. cat. Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, 1965.