Born in Stepney, England, Pater was the second son of Richard Glode Pater, a doctor, who had moved there in the early 1800s and practiced medicine among the poor. He died while Walter was an infant and the family moved to Enfield, where he attended Enfield Grammar School.
In 1853 Pater was sent to The King's School, Canterbury, where the beauty of the cathedral made an impression that would remain with him all his life. As a schoolboy he read John Ruskin's Modern Painters and was, for a while, attracted to the study of art, showing no signs of the literary taste which he was to develop. His progress was always gradual. He gained a school exhibition, however, with which he proceeded in 1858 to Queen’s College, Oxford.
His undergraduate life was unusually uneventful. He was a shy "reading man", making few friends. The scholar Benjamin Jowett was struck by Pater's potential and offered to give him private lessons. In his classes, however, Pater was a disappointment, taking only a second in literae humaniores in 1862. After graduating, he settled in Oxford and taught private pupils. As a boy he had cherished the idea of entering the Anglican Church, but at Oxford his faith in Christianity was shaken. By the time he took his degree, he thought of graduating as a Unitarian minister. However, in spite of his inclination towards the aesthetic, ritual elements of the church, he did not ultimately pursue ordination. Being offered a fellowship at Brasenose in 1864, he settled down into a university career.
However, it was not his intention to sink into academic torpor. As he began his career, Pater's sphere of interests widened rapidly; he became acutely interested in literature, and started to write articles and criticism. The first of these to be printed was a brief essay on Coleridge, contributed in 1866 to the Westminster Review. A few months later (January, 1867), his essay on Winckelmann, the first expression of his idealism, appeared in the same review.
In the following year his study of "Aesthetic Poetry" appeared in the Fortnightly Review, to be succeeded by essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola and Michelangelo. These, with other similar studies, were collected in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873. Pater, now at the centre of a small but interesting circle in Oxford, gained respect in London and elsewhere, numbering the Pre-Raphaelites among his friends.
In 1874 he was turned down at the last moment by his erstwhile mentor Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, for a previously-promised proctorship. The reason remained a mystery until recently, when records were found documenting an affair with a nineteen-year-old undergraduate, William Money Hardinge. Hardinge had attracted unfavorable attention as a result of his outspoken homosexuality and blasphemous verse, and was allowed to withdraw rather than be expelled. Many of Pater's works focus on male love, either in a Platonic way or in a more physical way.
He next became a candidate for the Slade Professorship of Poetry at Oxford University but soon withdrew from the competition in the wake of personal criticism, part of it spawned by W. H. Mallock in a satirical novel entitled The New Republic. In it, Pater is depicted as a stereotypically effeminate English aesthete.
Nevertheless, by the time his philosophical novel Marius the Epicurean appeared, he had gathered quite a following. This, his chief contribution to literature, was published early in 1885. In it Pater displays, with fullness and elaboration, his ideal of the aesthetic life, his cult of beauty as opposed to bare asceticism, and his theory of the stimulating effect of the pursuit of beauty as an ideal of its own. The principles of what would be known as the Aesthetic movement were partly traceable to Pater and his effect was particularly felt on one of the movement's leading proponents, Oscar Wilde, a former student of Pater at Oxford.
In 1887 he published Imaginary Portraits, a series of essays in philosophic fiction; in 1889, Appreciations, with an Essay on Style; in 1893, Plato and Platonism; and in 1894, The Child in the House. His Greek Studies and his Miscellaneous Studies were collected posthumously in 1895; his posthumous romance of Gaston de Latour appeared in 1896; and his essays from The Guardian were privately printed in 1897. A collected edition of Pater's works was issued in 1901.
Toward the end of his life, Pater exercised a growing and considerable influence. His mind, however, returned to the religious fervour of his youth. Those who knew him best believed that, had he lived longer, he would have resumed his youthful intention of taking holy orders. He died of rheumatic fever at the age of 55 and is buried at Holywell cemetery, Oxford.
Pater wrote with difficulty, fastidiously correcting his work. "I have known writers of every degree, but never one to whom the act of composition was such a travail and an agony as it was to Pater," wrote Edmund Gosse, who also described Pater's method of composition: "So conscious was he of the modifications and additions which would supervene that he always wrote on ruled paper, leaving each alternate line blank."  His literary style, serene and contemplative, suggested, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, a "vast attempt at impartiality."  The richness, depth, and acuity of his language was attuned to his philosophy of life. Idealists will find inspiration in his desire to "burn always with this hard, gemlike flame," and in his pursuit of the "highest quality" in "moments as they pass."
 In literature
Pater appears as a minor character in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love, along with several of his colleagues.
^ Inman, Billie Andrew, "Estrangement and Connection: Walter Pater, Benjamin Jowett, and William M. Hardinge", Pater in the 1990s,
^ Eribon, Didier & Lucey, Michael (transl.) (2004), Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, Duke University Press, p. 159-79, ISBN 0822333716
^ Edmund Gosse, "Walter Pater: A Portrait" (September 1894), from Critical Kit-Kats (1896)
^ G.K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), Ch. 1