Born in Accrington, Lancashire, John studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, where in 1966 he won the Walter Neurath prize for painting awarded by the publishers Thames & Hudson. In 1981 he received an Arts Council award and in 1983 was a prize-winner in the 4th Tolly Cobbold exhibition. Between 1985-89 he exhibited with the Lisson Gallery, London.
John Virtue became the sixth National Gallery of London Associate Artist, 2003-2005. In the same year he exhibited his London Paintings at the National Gallery, concurrently exhibiting his London Drawings and Small Paintings at the Courtauld Gallery. He won the South Bank Prize for painting, 2006.
In 2007 the artist moved to Italy and returned in 2009 to live and work in North Norfolk.
John Virtue shows regularly with Marlborough Fine Art, London and with Annandale Galleries, Sydney.