Bolton was born in West Yorkshire, England and was the son of a weaver. He was a self-taught botanist, artist and engraver. His brother Thomas Bolton (1722-1778) was also a naturalist. James Bolton was highly successful as a mycologist and author of several botanical books including the first British book on fungi. James and Thomas Bolton were both sponsored by the art and natural history collector Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785).