James has art and design in his bones as both his parents were art teachers and he lived his formative years in the long and detailed restoration of his family home in Georgian Lancaster. He attended Lancaster Royal Grammar School after which James chose music for the first part of his career. He spent several very successful years as the keyboard player for the Two-Tone band The Selecter and later played for Madness. He then went on to compose music for theatre, television, film, and radio. His musical interests still continue today.

He was encouraged to learn gilding and specialist painting by a freelance craftsman and friend in London who undertook work for Aspreys and Buckingham Palace amongst others. He then started to make and paint furniture and, later, became a member of the Guild of Master Craftsmen.