The son of RAF pilot John Byrne Mayhew and Linda Georgina Mayhew (née Leighton), James Mayhew was brought up in the small village of Blundeston, Suffolk. He was a founder pupil of the Benjamin Britten High School and later attended the Denes High School in Lowestoft (for sixth form studies). On leaving school Mayhew studied at Lowestoft School of Art from 1982 to 1984, and then at Maidstone College of Art (now the University for the Creative Arts), graduating BA in 1987 with first class honours in illustration, followed by further studies in set design.
Mayhew's first published work was Katie's Picture Show (1989). In 1981, a summer as a pavement artist in Lowestoft, recreating famous works of art, inspired this idea, which was subsequently developed at Maidstone College of Art in 1984. This book spawned a series about a girl who explores famous paintings by climbing inside them. The central character is based on the author's sister, Katharine. There are currently 13 titles in the series, including Katie and the Mona Lisa (exploring Renaissance art); Katie and the Waterlily Pond (about Monet's pictures); Katie and the Starry Night (using art by Van Gogh) and the non art-related title Katie's London Christmas. In 2014 Mayhew completely re-illustrated the first title for a 25th anniversary edition. A musical stage production of Katie and the Mona Lisa was premiered at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon in April 2013, subsequently repeated in a revised production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. Katie in London was one of only 50 books chosen for the Books about Town project in 2014, where famous books were recreated as benches. Mayhew hand-painted his bench which was positioned near the Tower of London until auctioned off in October 2014.
In 2015, the National Gallery in London acquired an exclusive license to produce merchandise based on the Katie series.
Mayhew has published over 50 books. They include the Ella Bella Ballerina series, Miranda the Castaway, BOY, illustrations for the Mouse and Mole books (animated for BBC television, with the voices of Alan Bennett, Richard Briers and Imelda Staunton), Koshka's Tales (a collection of Russian Folk stories), Can you see a Little Bear?; Mrs Noah's Pockets (illustrated by Jackie Morris) and Bubble and Squeak (with illustrations by Clara Vulliamy). Mayhew has had books published in Japan, China, Korea, Germany, France, Greece, Estonia, Spain, Scandinavia, Russia, Turkey, the US, and other countries. He has also written for television (Melody; Driver Dan's Story Train).
In 1994 he received The New York Times Award for one of the ten best illustrated books of the year for The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams, written by Jenny Koralek. Shakespeare's Storybook (a collaboration with Patrick Ryan) received an Aesop Accolade from the American Folklore Society in 2002. In 2011 Mayhew was the first illustrator selected to appear on the BBC's Authors Live series for Scottish Book Trust.
Since 2007 Mayhew has devised and presented classical music concerts for children with many different orchestras, ensembles and soloists. These events incorporate narration and live illustration, painted in time to the music, and usually projected. They have included Peter and the Wolf, The Firebird, Swan Lake, Pictures at an Exhibition, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, The Planets, William Tell and Scheherazade. In 2016 made his debut at the Royal Albert Hall.
Mayhew's collaborations include concerts with the Carducci Quartet, The Orchestra of the Music Makers from Singapore, The Docklands Sinfonia, Chetham's Symphony Orchestra, Baroque specialists Realm of Music, and the Russian pianist Alexander Ardakov. In 2013 he designed sets and costumes for a major production of the opera Noye's Fludde in Tewkesbury Abbey, to celebrate Benjamin Britten's centenary year, and as part of his role as the Guest Director of the 2013 Cheltenham Music Festival.
In February 2017 the composer Bernard Hughes adapted Mayhew's The Knight Who Took All Day as a concert work for orchestra and narrator. Mayhew himself narrated (and illustrated) the world premiere with the Hertford Symphony Orchestra. Later that month he departed from his usual classical concerts to join the singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram at the Barbican Centre in London. Mayhew painted to two songs: Glass Love Train and Cathedral Song.
In July 2017, Mayhew performed, as narrator, in the world premiere performances of a new orchestral work for children, for which he also wrote the script: The Caretaker's Guide to the Orchestra. The music was composed by Jeremy Holland-Smith and was performed by the Docklands Sinfonia. The performances were directed by Royal Ballet choregrapher/director Will Tuckett.
Mayhew is artistic advisor to The Són Project, the Southampton based professional orchestra.
Mayhew has spoken at festivals, conferences and schools internationally and in 2014 was Illustrator in Residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He has exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery in 2010 and 2014/15. In 2017 he worked in Singapore and Vietnam, on literary and art projects for both students and teachers. He teaches students on the Children's Book Illustration M.A. in Cambridge Anglia Ruskin University, and has taught courses on writing at the Arvon Foundation.
Mayhew is a Trustee of the charity Action for Children's Arts, and a committee member for the Children's Writers and Illustrator's Group for the Society of Authors, and is active in campaigning for better opportunities for children and children's authors. The art created at concerts has also raised funds for charities through auctions. He is also patron of Magic Lantern, an arts education charity.
Mayhew currently lives in Hertfordshire with his partner "Toto" (the Spanish artist Antonio Reche-Martinez).
Katie and the Bathers
Katie and the Dinosaurs
Katie and the Starry Night
Katie and the Mona Lisa
Katie and the Sunflowers
Katie in London
Katie and the Impressionists
Katie's Picture Show
Katie and the Spanish Princess
Katie and the Waterlily Pond
Katie in Scotland
Katie and the British Artists
Katie's London Christmas
Who Wants a Dragon? (Illustrated by Lindsey Gardiner)
When Dragons are Dreaming (Illustrated by Lindsey Gardiner)
Bubble & Squeak (illustrated by Clara Vulliamy)
Can you see a Little Bear? (illustrated by Jackie Morris)
Starlight Sailor (illustrated by Jackie Morris)
Koshka's Tales - stories from Russia
Ella Bella Ballerina and The Sleeping Beauty
Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake
Ella Bella Ballerina and Cinderella
Ella Bella Ballerina and The Nutcracker
Ella Bella Ballerina and A Midsummer Night's Dream
Madame Nightingale Will Sing Tonight
Miranda the Explorer
Miranda the Castaway
The magic Sword
The Knight who Took All Day
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream (Shakespeare)
Shakespeare's Stories (retold by Beverely Birch)
Barefoot Book of Stories from the Opera (retold by Shahrukh Husein)
Shakespeare's Story Book - Folk Tales that inspired the Bard (retold by Patrick Ryan)
Pinocchio (retold by Josephine Poole)
Mouse And Mole (by Joyce Dunbar)
Mouse And Mole have a Party (by Joyce Dunbar)
A very special Mouse And Mole (by Joyce Dunbar)
Happy Days for Mouse And Mole (Joyce Dunbar)
The Boy And The Cloth Of Dreams (by Jenny Koralek)
The Cloth of Dreams (anthology edited by Sally Grindley)
Tales of Ghostly Ghouls and Haunting Horrors (Written by Martin Waddell)
Boneless and the Tinker
Death and the Neighbours
Soft Butler's Ghost