Beyond the fact that he was born in the vicinity of Smithfield in central London, the son of a Catholic clothworker, and christened at the church of St Bartholomew the Less, little is known about Jones' early years. But towards the end of the 16th century, he became one of the first Englishmen to study architecture in Italy, making two visits to that country, the first c.1598-1603 (possibly funded by the Earl of Rutland) and the second, 1613-14, accompanied by the Earl of Arundel. His work then became particularly influenced by Andrea Palladio; to a lesser extent, he also held that the setting out of buildings should be guided by principles first described by ancient Roman writer Vitruvius.
Jones' best known buildings are the Queen's House at Greenwich, London (started in 1616, his earliest surviving work) and the Banqueting House at Whitehall (1619) -- part of a major modernisation by him of the Palace of Whitehall -- which also has a ceiling painted by Peter Paul Rubens.
The Banqueting House was one of several projects where Jones worked with his personal assistant and son-in-law John Webb.
The other project in which Jones was involved was the design of Covent Garden. He was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford to build a residential square along the lines of an Italian piazza. The Duke felt obliged to provide a church and he warned Jones that he wanted to economise. He told him to simply erect a "barn" and Jones' oft-quoted response was that his lordship would have "the finest barn in Europe". Little remains of the original church situated to the west of the piazza.
As well as his architectural work, Jones did a great deal of work in the field of stage design. He designed costumes for a number of masques by Ben Jonson, and the two had famous arguments about whether stage design or literature was more important in theatre. Jones is also credited with introducing movable scenery and the proscenium arch to English theatre.
As the King's surveyor, Jones' career effectively ended with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 and the seizure of the King's houses in 1643. His property was later returned to him (c.1646) but Jones ended his days living in Somerset House and was subsequently buried in the Church of St Benet Paul's Wharf, in London.