He was the son of Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855) an American artist, the son of a stockbroker, who originally studied medicine but who turned to painting as a career. In 1845, at the age of 20, Woodville left Baltimore to train at the Kunstacademie in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he lived for the next six years with his wife, Mary Theresa (nee Buckler), whom he had married on 3 January 1844.
Woodville senior had two children with Mary Theresa, Henry and Bessie, both born in Germany. By 1850, his wife and children had returned to Baltimore and were living with Mary's parents. Richard, meanwhile, left Düsseldorf in 1851 and lived in Paris before moving to London. There, he had a daughter, Alice Elizabeth Mary Woodville, who was baptized on 16 April 1853 at St Pancras. The mother was listed as Antoinette Woodville, although Richard and Antoinette Marie Schnitzler, the daughter of Anton Schnitzter (an architect), were only subsequently married, at the parish church in St. George, Bloomsbury, on 28 February 1854.
Woodville died of an overdose of morphine on 13 August 1855, aged only 30, and was buried at St James's, St Pancras, on 16 August 1855. At the time, Antoinette was pregnant with their second child and Richard Caton Woodville Jr was born in Stanhope Gardens, Gloucester Road, London, on 7 January 1856 and baptized on 24 March 1856 at St Pancras.
Antoinette, who also had some standing as a portrait painter, took her family first to St. Petersburg and later settled in Düsseldorf where her son studied painting under the Prussian military artist Wilhelm Camphausen, then under religious painter Eduard von Gebhardt before briefly studying in Russia and then Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme. He submitted his first black & white illustrations to the Illustrated London News at the age of 20 and was encouraged by Sir William Ingram to send more.
At 21, on 15 October 1877, Woodville married 22-year-old Annie Elizabeth Hill at Christ Church, Brondesbury. Shortly after, he was sent to report on the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and later, in December 1882, to the Anglo-Egyptian War where he produced sketches and took photographs of the trenches at Tel-e-Kebir. Woodville was himself a member of the Royal Berks Yeomanry Cavalry, having joined in 1879. He resigned after a few years and joined the Volunteer Royal Engineers and then the Royal North Devon Hussars with the rank of captain.
In 1879, his painting Before Leuthen, Dec. 3rd, 1757 was exhibited at the Royal Academy and, over the next few years he produced many popular paintings, amongst them Kandahar and Saving the Guns at Maiwand (both inspired by the Second Anglo-Afghan War), and many scenes from the Zulu War and First Boer War. His painting The Moonlight Charge at Kassassin,was exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1883 and The Guards at Tel-e-Kebir was exhibited by Royal Command in 1884. The latter was painted for the Royal Family in 1882 and led to a number of further commissions, including the wedding of Princess Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885. He later also painted a portraits King Edward VII and King George V.
By 1881 Woodville was living at 22 Park Village, St Pancras, in a household with three servants. The Woodvilles had two children, Anthony Caton Woodville (b. 1878) and William Caton Woodville (1884-1962). Despite having two children, he was incredibly prolific, preferring to work at night and in the small hours of the morning while his wife read aloud to him.
Woodville made extensive trips abroad, including a trip in 1886 to Morocco and, in 1889, accompanied HRH Prince Albert to India, travelling via Marseilles and Paris. By then he had split up with his wife (who subsequently married Henry MacGregor Lowry, a retired army colonel, on 3 January 1895) and had a studio and flat in Tite Street, Chelsea, below that of James McNeill Whistler.
The split had occurred before 1891, as Richard Caton Woodville was then in Paris where he was married at the British consul to Helen Eleanor Waddington.
Woodville was commissioned by the Illustrated London News to paint a series depicting famous battle throughout history, including the charnge of the Light Brigade, the Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, the Battle of Blenheim, the Battle of Badajos and several of the Battle of Waterloo. In 1895 he produced some 200 drawings, 2 large paintings and 2 smaller paintings. He maintained a large collection of arms and uniforms at his studio.
By the time of the 1901 census — at which time Woodville was living at 107 Queens Gate, Kensington — there was no sign of his second wife, although he was listed as married; it would appear that the couple divorced later that year in Nebraska. His earnings appeared to be still substantial and he employed a secretary, Madeleine Austin, and a married couple, James and Helen Harbour, who were his butler and cook. He was, however, untidy in his financial affairs: in 1891, Woodville owed rent on his studio in Tite Street and had his possessions seized and sold cheaply at auction; later, in October 1904, he filed for bankruptcy and was declaired bankrupt on 7 January 1905, with liabilities of £14,000 and almost no assets, claiming that his effects at his studio had been sold under a bill of sale executed about two years earlier. He was released from bankruptcy on 28 May 1906.
By 1911, and now living at Flat C, 2 Carlisle Place, Victoria Street, Westminster, Woodville the census return was claiming that Woodville and Madelaine (sic) Woodville had been married for twelve years (i.e. married around 1899), although this seems unlikely. Madeleine Adelaide Austin was the daughter of Irish-born John (by 1881 a Chelsea Pensioner) and Mary Austin (nee Coleman, born in Bangalore, India).
In 1913 he was involved in a controversial pageant, to be staged on Boxing Day at Earl's Court, entitled The Romance of India which was the subject of much complaint from Indian residents who claimed that a scene depicting ritual murder would create ill-feeling among his Majesty's loyal subjects in India. The scene had been pictured by Woodville in an issue if the Illustrated London News before the show was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's department for licensing. The Lord Chamberlain subsequently approached the India Office and the Secretary of State also became involved. Woodville had a second scenario rejected, but the third was accepted; however, the delays led to the finances for the show being withdrawn and the show abandoned.
Woodville depicted numerous battles during the Great War, including three that were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1927: The 2nd Batt. Manchester Regiment taking six guns at dawn near St. Quentin, Entry of the 5th Lancers into Mons and Halloween, 1914: Stand of the London Scottish on Messines Ridge.
Madeleine (Madge) Woodville died on 26 December 1926, aged 50.
Woodville lived at Flat B, Dudley Mansions, 29 Abbey Road, St John's Wood, Middlesex, where he committed suicide on 17 August 1927: at shortly after 1 pm, Woodville's housekeeper and a friend, Mr. P. Gair, heard a report from a revolver and found Woodville sitting in his favourite chair in the studio attached to his house with a bullet wound to his head. He was still breathing, but died on the way to the hospital. Although he had been laughing and joking only that morning, Woodville had recently been suffering from heart trouble and pain from his leg, which he had broken years earlier and which had been aggravated by a second accident in Egypt.
An obituary in The Times described him as:
a cheerful, kindly man, who had more right to be considered a true Bohemian of the old school than many to whom that tern has been applied. When he produced his "Random Recollections" the public were given a series of merry or thrilling stories of dancing, duelling, sport, fighting, murders, sudden death, and hair-breadth escapes, his pictures being kept in the background.After such an active life, Woodville was worried that, at 71, he would become an invalid. A letter read out at an inquest on 20 August 1927 revealed his final thoughts: "I am mentally and bodily ill. My health is a thing of the past." The Coroner recorded a verdict that Woodville was of unsound mind when he shot himself.
His effects — which amounted to only £10 — were left to his son, actor Anthony Canton Woodville. His son W. P. Caton Woodville was also a painter.
Examples of Richard Caton Woodville's artwork can be found for sale at the Illustration Art Gallery.