Ian Fairweather was born in Scotland, 29 September 1891, the youngest of nine children. He was raised by relatives until 1901, and spent his formative years in England before arriving in Melbourne in 1934. During the First World War he served as a lieutenant in the British army, but was captured in France, spending four years as prisoner of war. After the war, he studied at The Hague Academy (1918) and the Slade School of Fine Art, London (1920–24); in the evenings he studied Japanese and Chinese at the University of London. From this time on, he began a nomadic existence, travelling to North America, Asia, Australia, and to the Pacific.

From Australia, in 1934, Fairweather travelled to the Philippines, then to Shanghai, Peking (Beijing), Manila, Singapore and Calcutta, where he lived often in abject poverty. In the 1930s his work was shown at the Redfern Gallery, London, and, in 1937, at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, and at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. After returning to Melbourne in 1943, he again travelled and worked extensively throughout Australia, before settling, in 1952, on Bribie Island. Here Fairweather, who was by nature reclusive, was able to live a secluded life close to nature, although in very basic conditions.

Despite Fairweather’s increasing prominence in the Australian art scene—the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased his work in 1948 and 1949 respectively—he was unable (or unwilling) to survive on the income from his art. Macquarie Galleries, who exhibited his work in most years from 1955 to 1961, established a trust account on his behalf. In 1965–66 a retrospective exhibition, organised by the Queensland Art Gallery, was shown at all the state galleries. From 1969, suffering from arthritis and cardiac disease, he found it hard to work. He died on 20 May 1974 in Royal Brisbane Hospital. A second retrospective toured Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in 1994–95.