James Wright was born at Fenton, Staffordshire, England, on 11 April 1819, the son of Eleanor Bennet and her husband, William Wright, an engraver. On 9 March 1841, at Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, he married Mary Ann Tams. They were to have seven children, of whom three sons and a daughter survived to adulthood.
James Wright was manager of a Staffordshire pottery before he emigrated to New Zealand under the Albertland scheme to establish a nonconformist settlement on the Kaipara Harbour. He arrived at Auckland with his family on the Annie Wilson in September 1863. Initially he settled in Auckland, where he began working for Daniel Pollen's Whau Pottery. At this time pottery manufacture in New Zealand was largely confined to pipes, bricks and tiles, and coarse earthenware. Wright's broad range of skills was recognised when Pollen exhibited his work, first at the 1864 Auckland Horticultural Society show, and the following year at the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin, where Wright received an honorary certificate. Exhibits from what the judges described as New Zealand's first manufactory of the kind included encaustic floor tiles and a wide range of domestic pottery comparable with contemporary work from the Staffordshire potteries.
Leaving Pollen's, Wright set up his own works on the banks of the Rewarewa Creek, and by the mid 1870s had moved to the Albertland settlement of Paparoa. Here he prospected widely for suitable clays and built a small pottery on the banks of the Paparoa Creek, followed later by a larger works behind the township. Early visitors to the pottery commented on the high technical standard of his work and his innovative use of native plant motifs. He exhibited locally and in Auckland, where his work received critical praise. However, he was unable to find a market for his wares, or backers for a colonial pottery industry modelled on Staffordshire lines.
In mid 1877, with his sons Edwin and James, he established a new pottery at Hamilton West in partnership with Thomas Vincent: Wright and Vincent's Drain Tile and Pottery Works. Initially producing drain tiles, they soon moved into the manufacture of decorative wares, including edging tiles, garden vases and domestic pottery. Here Wright further developed his use of antipodean motifs, decorating garden vases with designs based on the foliage of karaka and New Zealand cedar. His most ambitious works produced at Hamilton were 500-pound pottery baptismal fonts, one of which was sent to the 1880–81 Melbourne International Exhibition; another was made in 1881 for St Peter's Church, Hamilton.
Despite access to coal, transport and the growing Auckland and Waikato markets, Wright still found that he could not compete with the cheap, imported Staffordshire earthenwares which dominated the New Zealand market. Continuing attempts to attract investment in his retail china shop, the Staffordshire Warehouse, failed, as did plans for a fine china factory in Hamilton. In poor health, he severed his association with Thomas Vincent and in 1882 closed his business and retired to Paparoa. His son Edwin moved to Huntly the following year where he set up a short-lived pottery works. James Wright died at Paparoa on 6 July 1887; his wife died three months later on 9 October.