William Payne was born in Westminster, London on 4th March 1760, the son of a highly successful hop and coal merchant. He received some drawing lessons, possibly from Paul Sandby, and in 1776 sent a drawing to the Society of Artists, though he did not exhibit again for a decade. In 1778, he was appointed a ‘fifth class’ draughtsman by the Board of Ordnance, and worked in its Drawing Room at the Tower of London. He received training in drawing, mathematics and perspective, the last taught by Henry Gilder, a protégé and servant of Thomas Sandby. He then tested that training in an apprenticeship of surveying and mapping, and also of gun drill. By 1783, he had been promoted to the second class. The Board then sent Payne to Plymouth Dock, as one of a team concerned with its defence against the French. His tour of duty ran from March 1783 to September 1788.
During his time in Plymouth, Payne married and began to develop a distinct artistic career. From 1786 to 1790, he exhibited West Country views at the Royal Academy. From 1788, his work was engraved and published by Middiman. By the end of 1798 he had obtained a permanent London address and between 1790 to 1794 he made extensive tours of Wales and the West Country. In 1809, Payne relaunched himself as an exhibiting artist, working in both oil and watercolour: he showed work at the British Institution, and was elected as an associate of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours. In 1811 and 1819 he widened his subject matter by making tours of the Lake District but his popularity slowly began to decline. He died in London in August 1830.