Ben Hartley was born and grew up in the country, in the Peak District, in Mellor, east of Stockport. A sickly child suffering from a difficult chest condition, his early years were largely spent indoors, reading and drawing. His great delight was to be allowed go to the nearby farm of his grandparents, observing the animals, absorbing a feeling for the life of farming people: a formative factor in making him the artist he became. He was an outstanding draughtsman and colourist, combining poetry and humour in everything he produced, at times attaining a visionary level, very much in the tradition of Samuel Palmer.
An academic boy, he attended Manchester Grammar School, but his health was always a problem. His parents understood his deep attachment to drawing, so he left grammar school at 16 to go to art school, firstly in Stockport, then in Manchester and finally at the Royal College of Art in London, in the printmaking department. He was always noted both for the quality of his work and his extremely private nature.