Born in Shadwell, England, Pater was the second son of Richard Glode Pater, a doctor, who had moved there in the early 1800s and practiced medicine among the poor. He died while Walter was an infant, and the family moved to Enfield.
In 1853 Pater was sent to King's School, Canterbury, where he was impressed by the beauty of the cathedral. The association remained with him through life. As a schoolboy he read Modern Painters and was, for a while, attracted to the study of art, showing no signs of the literary taste which he was to develop. His progress was always gradual. He gained a school exhibition, however, with which he proceeded in 1858 to Queen’s College, Oxford.
His undergraduate life was unusually uneventful; he was a shy, "reading man", making few friends. The scholar Jowett was struck by Pater's potential and offered to give him private lessons. In class, however, Pater was a disappointment, and he only took a second in literae humaniores in 1862. After graduating he settled in Oxford and taught private pupils. As a boy he had cherished the idea of entering the Anglican Church but his faith in Christianity was shaken at Oxford, and by the time he took his degree he thought of graduating as a Unitarian minister. He didn't pursue this, however, and being offered a fellowship at Brasenose, in 1864, he settled down into a university career.
But it was not his intention to sink into academic torpor. As he began his career, the sphere of his interests widened rapidly; he became acutely interested in literature, and even began to write articles and criticisms himself. The first of these to be printed was a brief essay upon Coleridge, which he contributed in 1866 to the Westminster Review. A few months later (January, 1867), his essay on Winckelmann, the first expression of his idealism, appeared in the same review.
In the following year his study of "Aesthetic Poetry" appeared in the Fortnightly Review, to be succeeded by essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, and Michelangelo. These, with other similar studies, were collected in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1878. Pater was now the centre of a small but interesting circle in Oxford, and gained respect in London and elsewhere.
The little body of Pre-Raphaelites were among his friends, and by the time that Marius the Epicurean appeared he had quite a following. This, his chief contribution to literature, was published early in 1885. In it Pater displays, with fullness and elaboration, his ideal of the aesthetic life, his cult of beauty as opposed to bare asceticism, and his theory of the stimulating effect of the pursuit of beauty as an ideal of its own.
In 1887 he published Imaginary Portraits, a series of essays in philosophic fiction; in 1889, Appreciations, with an Essay on Style; in 1803, Plato and Platonism; and in 1894, The Child in the House. His Greek Studies and his Miscellaneous Studies were collected posthumously in 1895; his posthumous romance of Gaston de Latour in 1896; and his Essays from the "Guardian" were privately printed in 1897. A collected edition of Pater's works was issued in 1901.
He wrote with difficulty, correcting and recorrecting his work. His mind, moreover, returned to the religious fervour of his youth, and those who knew him best believed that had he lived longer he would have resumed his boyish intention of taking holy orders.
Pater died at the age of 55 of rheumatic fever. Pater's nature was so contemplative that he never gave full expression to his individuality. His peculiar literary style was too austerely magnificent to be always persuasive. At the time of his death Pater exercised a remarkable and a growing influence. The richness and depth of his language harmonized with his philosophy of life, and idealists will always find inspiration in his desire to "burn with a hard, gem-like flame," and to live in harmony with the highest.