Southall was born in Nottingham and grew up in Birmingham. His parents both came from distinguished Quaker families. In 1874 he entered the Friends' School at Bootham, where he was taught painting by Edwin Moore (1813-1893), a brother of the Aesthetic painter Albert Moore (1841-1893) and the marine painter Henry Moore (1831-1895). In 1882 he attended the Birmingham School of Art where he met Arthur Gaskin (1862-1928), henceforth his closest friend, and other future members of the Birmingham Group.
In 1883 Southall spent eight weeks in Italy, studying the early masters, and on his return began to experiment with the tempera technique. In 1901, together with Walter Crane (1845-1915), J.D. Batten (1860-1932) and others, Southall founded the Society of Painters in Tempera. He was undoubtedly the single most important exponent of the tempera revival, becoming internationally established during his career.
Southall and his wife paid frequent visits to Italy and France throughout their life, and these provided him with many landscape and figure subjects such as the present watercolour. Southall joined the Royal Water-Colour Society in 1925.
A related drawing, also entitled Orta, Venti Settembre was exhibited, The Fine Art Society, London, in Sixty works by Joseph Southall, 1861-1944: from the Fortunoff Collection, 15 March-4 June 2005, no. 22, illustrated in catalogue.