Born to Samuel Charlton and his wife Mary Ann (née Pickering) Charlton on 28 June 1849, in Bamburgh, Northumberland, he received his first lessons in drawing from his father when he was only three or four years old, and within a few years was drawing horses with some skill. Due to his family’s financial misfortunes, he had to attend Dr. Sharp’s charity school held in Bamburgh’s great castle, and a few years later, was forced to quit and find employment. A job in the Newcastle bookshop of Mr. Robinson, a keen collector of the work of Thomas Berwick, “the father of Wood engraving,” gave him an appreciation of graphic art. It was here that the budding artist began to imitate the master’s work, much to the delight of two of Berwick’s aging sisters. Later he spent seven monotonous years employed in the office of Sir Isaac Bell’s ironworks, but seeing the young man’s skill at draughtsmanship, his employers regularly granted him one day a week in which to practice his art. Mr. Joseph Crawhill suggested that he attend evening classes at the Newcastle School of Arts under William Bell Scott. During this time he began to develop quite a reputation on Tyneside as a painter of horses and dogs, and he received some commissions to portray family pets.
He debuted at the Royal Academy in 1870, and his first painting with a military theme, Exercising artillery horses on a frosty morning, appeared three years later. Realising that his best prospects for advancement lay in the London art world, he ventured south in 1874 and took classes at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, under J. D. Watson.While he settled in the capital, he never forgot his northern roots, maintaining a house at 24 Windsor Terrace, Newcastle, and at one time lived at Cullercoats, while his final years were spent at Lanercost in Cumbria.
The late 1870s and 1880s were a very busy time for British and colonial forces as they tried to consolidate colonial hold over possessions in northern and southern Africa. Many of the illustrations appearing in The Graphic depicting these events came from the hand of Charlton, especially during the Egyptian campaign of 1882, when he had to draw-up many of the eye-witness sketches posted to the paper by its ‘special artists’ as well as soldiers. It was also during 1882 that he married Kate, daughter of Thomas Vaughan, J.P. of Ugthorp Lodge, Cleveland.