He was born in Stepney, the son of a doctor, who died while Walter was an infant. The family then moved to Enfield. He was educated at the King's School Canterbury and Queen's College, Oxford. He abandoned boyhood thoughts of becoming a clergyman, and remained in Oxford as a private tutor and then a fellow of Brasenose College.
In the 1980s, letters emerged documenting a "romance" with a nineteen-year-old Balliol undergraduate, William Money Hardinge, who had attracted unfavorable attention as a result of his outspoken homosexuality and blasphemous verse, and who later became a novelist. Many of Pater's works focus on male beauty, friendship and love, either in a Platonic way or, obliquely, in a more physical way. Another undergraduate, W. H. Mallock, had passed the Pater-Hardinge letters to Pater's former tutor, Benjamin Jowett, who summoned Pater:
- "Pater's whole nature changed under the strain" (wrote A C Benson in his diary) "after the dreadful interview with Jowett. He became old, crushed, despairing – and this dreadful weight lasted for years; it was years before he realised that Jowett would not use them."
Pater is considered the founder of the Aesthetic movement, whose followers notably included Oscar Wilde.
His major works include The Renaissance and the novel Marius the Epicurean.
- http://www.uncg.edu/eng/elt/pater/chap2.html Billie Andrew Inman, "Estrangement and Connection: Walter Pater, Benjamin Jowett, and William M. Hardinge" in Pater in the 1990s, 1991. Accessed: 2007-08-04. (Archived by WebCite® at http://web.archive.org/web/20070804230203/http://www.uncg.edu/eng/elt/pater/chap2.html
- Didier Eribon, "Insult and the Making of the Gay Self", transl, Michael Lucey, (Duke University Press, 2004, isbn= 0-8223-3371-6), pages 159–79
- Information given by Edmund Gosse to A C Benson (Benson's Diary, 73, 1 September 1905); Walter Pater: An Imaginative Sense of Fact, ed. Philip Dodd (London, 1981), p.48
- A. C. Benson, Diary, 73, 1 September 1905; Walter Pater: An Imaginative Sense of Fact, ed. Philip Dodd (London, 1981), p.48