James Howe was born on 30 August 1780 at Skirling in Peeblesshire. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Edinburgh, where he was apprenticed to the Nories, well-known house-painters and interior decorators. From 1808 he exhibited with the Society of Artists in Edinburgh.
Howe primarily painted carefully detailed studies of animals, alongside more lively and comical paintings of rural scenes and character portraits. He carried out commissions for King George III and the eleventh earl of Buchan.
In 1815 he visited Waterloo, possibly accompanied by his pupil William Kidd (1796–1863), and on returning to Edinburgh produced a large panorama painting of the battle which was exhibited in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Examples of his work are in Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums; the National Gallery of Scotland, and Edinburgh City Libraries.