John Atkinson was born in Newcastle in 1863; he was not an artist from a young age, and it was not until after various jobs such as telegraphist and secretary to wealthy Newcastle shipbuilder Charles Mitchell (1820-1895) that he decided to attend classes at the Newcastle College of Art (now Northumbria University), supposedly under Wilson Hepple (1853-1937), in order to pursue a career in art. In 1901 he moved to Sleights, near Whitby, and became a professional artist upon the exhibition of his first work, 'A Winter's Morning', at the Royal Academy, at which he continued to exhibit until a year before his death. He later moved to nearby Glaisdale, before returning to Newcastle upon the outbreak of WWI, where he would stay for the remainder of his life.
Atkinson is undoubtedly most famous for his animal paintings, particularly of horses. This was not just a talent but a love, as Atkinson was a keen supporter of the RSPCA, with whom he supplied many advertising illustrations. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, the Yorkshire Union of Artists (where he won a Bronze Medal in 1915), the Bewick Club (along with fellow Staithes Group members Ralph Hedley, Robert and Isa Jobling, and James Watson), and of course the Staithes Art Club, although he did not join the latter until its final year of existence.
Alongside being a professional artist, John Atkinson was also a teacher, initially at Ushaw College and later at Morpeth Grammar School, and a proficient inn sign painter, earning personal praise from the Duke of York for those which he designed for villages along the Thames. Atkinson died at Gateshead in 1924 and is buried in the town's Saltwell Cemetery; a memorial exhibition was held of his work the following year at the Armstrong College in Newcastle, and a major retrospective was held at the Moss Galleries, Hexham, in 1981. His work is held by the Laing and Hatton Galleries, Newcastle, Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, and of course the Pannett Gallery, Whitby.