Although he was born in Northumberland, William Coldstream spent most of his childhood in London where he also attended the Slade School of Fine Art from 1926. He won various prizes whilst studying there and was influenced by the work of artists such as Cézanne, Braque, Matisse, Picasso and Sickert. He left the Slade in 1929 and had his first commission the following year, as well as being elected to the London Artists’ Association. In 1931 he married fellow artist Nancy Culliford Sharp. He became temporary art master at Wellington College in 1932 and was elected to the London Group in 1933. Four years later, he established the school of drawing and painting that was later to become the Euston Road School, with Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore. He served during the Second World War until 1943, when he was appointed an official war artist, painting portraits and landscapes in Egypt and Italy. When he was demobilised in 1945 he began teaching at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, becoming the Head of Painting in 1948. The following year, he became Slade Professor at University College, London where he continued working for twenty-six years, being elected a fellow in 1953. During his time there he made film studies a subject at university level for the first time. He married again in 1961, this time to Monica Mary and, in the years following, produced many paintings including several excellent nudes and portraits.
In his lifetime, Coldstream received several honorary degrees and he was chairman of various institutions such as the art panel of the Arts Council, the National Advisory Council on Art Education and the British Film Institute. He was also a trustee of both the National and Tate Galleries and director of the Royal Opera House. He was appointed CBE in 1952.
Coldstream was dedicated to painting directly from life, working from what he saw. He only briefly worked in an abstract style, feeling it mainly appealed to an elitist minority. Several of his works are now held by the Tate Gallery.