Frederick Walker, the son of a William Walker, a jeweller, was born in 1840. After a brief education at the North London Collegiate School, Walker found employment in an architect's office. Walker had always been keen on drawing and for a short period in 1858 became a student at the Royal Academy.
At the end of 1858 Walker became an apprentice to the wood engraver, Josiah Wood. The following year Frederick Walker's engravings began appearing in magazines including Good Words, Once a Week and Everybody's Journal. In 1860 William Makepeace Thackeray began using his illustrations for his new journal, the Cornhill Magazine. This included the illustrations for Thackeray's novel, the Adventures of Philip that was published in 1862.
In 1863 Frederick Walker exhibited his first oil paintings at the Royal Academy. Most of these paintings were reworking of engravings that Walker had produced for magazines. One of these engravings that first appeared in Once a Week in 1866 became the painting The Vagrants. When the painting appeared at the Royal Academy it failed to find a buyer. However, paintings such as the Wayfarers, The Vagrants and The Harbour of Refuge had a tremendous influence on young artists such as Luke Fildes, Frank Holl and Hubert von Herkomer.
By 1872 Walker, whose paintings showed a deep concern for the under-privileged, was acknowledged as the leader of what became known as the social realist school of painting. Frederick Walker suffered from poor health throughout his life and died, aged thirty-five, in 1875.