As a youth he was a sailor, and during many long voyages he acquired that intimate acquaintance with the sea and shipping which was admirably displayed in his subsequent works. In his spare time he diligently occupied himself in sketching marine subjects, and so much skill did he acquire that, after having been incapacitated by an accident from active service, he received an engagement, about 1818, to paint scenery for the Old Royalty, a sailors theatre in Wellclose Square, London. Along with David Roberts he was afterwards employed at the Cobourg theatre, Lambeth; and in 1826 he became scene-painter to Drury Lane theatre, where he executed some admirable work, especially distinguishing himself by the production of a dropscene, and by decorations for the Christmas pieces for which the house was celebrated.
Meanwhile he had been at work upon some easel pictures of small dimensions, and was elected a member of the Society of British Artists. Encouraged by his success at the British Institution, where in 1827 he exhibited his first important picture "Wreckers off Fort Rouge" and in 1828 gained a premium of 50 guineas, he before 1830 abandoned scene-painting, and in that year made an extended tour on the Continent. He now produced his "Mount St Michael", which ranks as one of his finest works; in 1832 he exhibited his "Opening of New London Bridge" and "Portsmouth Harbour" commissions from William IV in the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate in 1832 and an academician in 1835
Until his death he contributed to its exhibitions a long series of powerful and highly popular works, dealing mainly with marine subjects, but occasionally with scenes of a more purely landscape character. Among these may be named:
The whole course of Stanfield's art was powerfully influenced by his early practice as a scene-painter. But, though there is always a touch of the spectacular and the scenic in his works, and though their color is apt to be rather dry and hard, they are large and effective in handling, powerful in their treatment of broad atmospheric effects and telling in composition, and they evince the most complete knowledge of the artistic materials with which their painter deals.