Walter Joseph Phillips was born in Barton-upon-Humber, England in 1884. He studied art in Birmingham before finding work as a teacher and commercial artist. After developing a reputation as an accomplished watercolourist in Britain, he moved to Canada in 1913 to settle in Winnipeg where he took up the position as art instructor at St John's Technical High School. Under the tutelage of another expatriate Englishman, Cyril H. Barraud, Phillips studied the craft of printmaking, and etching in particular, and later taught himself the technique of Japanese colour woodblock printing. He quickly developed a reputation as Canada's foremost printmaker, exhibiting throughout Britain, the United States and Canada, and through his art and his teaching influenced a generation of Canadian printmakers. He was also a particularly important figure within the Winnipeg art scene where he became the city's chief art critic as a regular writer for the Winnipeg Herald. He was also instrumental in founding the Manitoba Society of Artists in 1926.
In 1940 Phillips moved to Alberta to take a teaching position at the Banff School of Art (now the Banff Centre for Continuing Education), where he continued to teach until 1959. In 1941 he moved to Calgary, where he taught for a time at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (later the Alberta College of Art and Design). A prolific artist, W.J. Phillips produced over 200 prints in his lifetime along with a great many watercolours. He worked with a wide variety of subjects ranging from landscapes, still lifes and portraiture and also illustrated several books.