James Ferrier "Jimmy" Pryde was born at 23 London Street, Edinburgh, on 30 March 1866. He was the only son of the six children of David Pryde (1834–1907), who was headmaster of Edinburgh Ladies' College from 1870 to 1891, and his wife Barbara née Lauder (born 1833 or 1834), whose father William was a brother of the famous Scottish artists Robert Scott Lauder and James Eckford Lauder. The family moved to 10 Fettes Row, Edinburgh, in 1872. Pryde attended George Watson's Boys' College, and from 1885 to 1888 studied at the Royal Scottish Academy, where he had first exhibited in 1884. He was encouraged to paint by the Glasgow school painters James Guthrie and Edward Arthur Walton. In about 1899 he went to Paris to study under William-Adolphe Bouguereau at the Académie Julian, but the dismal and crowded atelier smelling of tobacco, stove-oil and bodies did not please him and after three months he returned to Scotland. In 1890 he went to London, and began to make pastel drawings in a style influenced by that of James McNeill Whistler.
In 1893 his sister Mabel married William Nicholson, four years after the two had met while studying at Hubert Herkomer's school of art in Bushey, Herts. In the same year Pryde and Nicholson formed the Beggarstaff partnership, which lasted until 1899, and produced innovative poster designs and signboards.
Between 1894 and 1899 Pryde tried his hand as an actor, playing small parts in several plays. Ellen Terry's son Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Pryde toured Scotland in 1895, described 'Jimmy' as 'one of the best painters who ever lived' and 'one of the biggest hearts on earth'. But Craig had no illusions about Pryde's dramatic ability:
as an actor he never really existed: but the idea of acting, the idea of the theatre – or rather the smell of the place, meant a lot to him. Yes, I think he got much 'inspiration' from the boards – and the thought and feel of it all, as of a magical place ...
He was an associate of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers from 1901 and Vice-President in 1921. His first one-man exhibition was held at the Baillie Gallery in 1911. He also exhibited at the Goupil Gallery, the Leicester Galleries, the Grosvenor Gallery, London Salon, New English Art Club, Royal Hibernian Academy, Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts and Royal Scottish Academy. In 1934 he was elected an honorary member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
In 1930 he designed the sets for Paul Robeson's Othello at the Savoy Theatre.
Pryde married in 1899, Marian Symons (d.1945), and died on 24 February 1941 in Kensington, London.
In 1949 an Arts Council Memorial Exhibition toured Edinburgh, Brighton and London.