Born in Birmingham, Walter Langley is generally dubbed the pioneer of the Newlyn School, as he was the first of the Newlyn School artists to settle in the village, setting up his studio in 1882. Like many of his fellow Newlyn artists, he had spent time in Brittany before discovering Cornwall, and some of his early Cornish works feature local models wearing the picturesque Breton costume.

Walter Langley started his artistic career at the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to a Birmingham lithographer. At twenty-one, having completed his apprenticeship, he won a scholarship to South Kensington, where he studied design. Langley returned to Birmingham to continue as a lithographer, but spent his spare time painting and soon gave up lithography to concentrate on this aspect of his work.

Although Langley was an accomplished painter in oils, he mainly painted in watercolour, often on a large scale. Using this demanding and difficult medium, he portrayed scenes of everyday life in a small fishing village, highlighting the hardships and tragedies that were commonplace during that period.

Langley remained based in West Cornwall throughout his career, and died in Penzance in March 1922.