William Penfold was born in Sussex, England in 1827. He was the son of William and Priscilla Penfold. Three years after the death of his mother, the family came to the United States and settled in Lockport, New York. Penfold only received a rudimentary education, however was constantly looking for ways for self-improvement, with a great talent for language, literature, and painting.
Penfold ran a paint and wallpaper store with his brother in Lockport for about two years and just before the breakout of the Civil War, he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he remained for two years. He moved to Buffalo around 1868, where he lived until his death in 1875.
He was a completely self-taught artist, specializing in portraits. During the height of his career as an artist, Penfold also instructed painting classes, wanting to advance the direction of the arts in Buffalo. He married another artist, Maria C. Chapman and their three children all inherited a talent for painting. Most prominent was Frank Crawford Penfold, an artist, teacher, and lecturer, known for marine/seascape, genre, landscape, and portrait paintings, especially of the Brittany region of France.