The son of a drawing-master living in Deptford, London, Harding was taught by Samuel Prout before being apprenticed to an engraver. He abandoned engraving after a year and devoted himself to painting in watercolour, teaching and lithography. In 1824 Harding made the first of several trips to Italy, and followed Prout in specialising in the continental picturesque.
Harding became the foremost drawing-master of his day; John Ruskin was among his pupils in the 1840s. He was well-known for his illustrations in the Landscape Annual as well as for the lithographs he made for his own published portfolios and manuals.