James Tonkin was born at Sennen, Cornwall, the third son of Charles Tonkin and his wife Elizabeth, a flour dealer and grocer in Penzance. Together with John Pope VIBERT, the artist produced a large number of lithographs of West Penwith landscapes and townscapes, including a series depicting the replacement of the Logan Rock, one of which (1824) is in the Penlee House collection. His other major talent was miniature portrait painting, for which he was called in by friends and neighbours. 

He is also known to have been a musician and pianoforte tuner, and highly respected locally for his many talents.

One of his sisters was a talented singer and his brothers were also musicians.