William Lionel Wyllie was born in London on 5 July 1851. He studied art at Heatherley’s (1865) and at the Royal Academy Schools (1866-69), where he won the Turner Medal in his final year. He also made a study of the history of shipbuilding to help him with his paintings. He was influenced by Henry Moore (1831-1905), Whistler and Turner, of whom he later wrote a study (1905).
Wyllie worked as a marine illustrator for the Graphic between 1870 and 1890, and from 1883 produced etchings for Robert Dunthorne of the Rembrandt Gallery. In 1884, he published Tidal Thames, the first of a number of books that he both wrote and illustrated. He became Marine Painter to the Royal Yacht Squadron and the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, and did much work, including posters, for the Orient Company, the White Star Line and the Union Castle Line. Often sailing in the barge Ladybird and in yachts, he made painting trips to Holland and Northern France. In 1917 he painted an aerial view of the Battle of Bourlon Wood, for which Air Marshal Trenchard sent maps and aerial photographs. Between 1924 and 1930 he worked on a Panorama of Trafalgar for the Victory Museum, Portsmouth.