Godward was born and lived in Wilton Grove, Wimbledon.
He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887.
When he moved to Italy with one of his models in 1912, his family broke off all contact with him and even cut his image from family pictures. Godward returned to England in 1919.
One of his best known paintings is "Dolce far Niente" (1904), which currently resides in the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber. As in the case of several other paintings, Godward painted more than one version, in this case an earlier (and less well known) 1897 version.
Godward was a Victorian Neoclassicist, and therefore a follower in theory of Frederic Leighton. However, he is more closely allied stylistically to Sir Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, with whom he shared a penchant for the rendering of Classical architecture, in particular, static landscape features constructed from marble.
The vast majority of Godward's extant images feature women in Classical dress, posed against these landscape features, though there are some semi-nude and fully nude figures included in his oeuvre. The titles reflect Godward's source of inspiration: Classical civilization, most notably that of Ancient Rome (again a subject binding Godward closely to Alma-Tadema artistically), though Ancient Greece sometimes features, thus providing artistic ties, albeit of a more limited extent, with Leighton.
Given that Classical scholarship was more widespread among the potential audience for his paintings during his lifetime than in the present day, meticulous research of detail was important in order to attain a standing as an artist in this genre. Alma-Tadema was, as well as a painter, an archaeologist who attended historical sites and collected artifacts that were later used in his paintings: Godward, too, studied such details as architecture and dress, in order to ensure that his works bore the stamp of authenticity.
In common with numerous painters contemporary with him, Godward was a 'High Victorian Dreamer', producing beautiful images of a world that was idealized and romanticized.
John William Godward died in 1922 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, west London.