He was born at Dickleburgh, near Diss, Norfolk. At the age of fourteen he began working as an architectural and topographical draughtsman; afterwards he contributed designs to be engraved in the annuals then so popular; thence he progressed into water-colour painting, becoming an associate of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1822, and a full member in 1833. In 1850 he withdrew from active connection with this society, and took to painting in oil. His most fertile period was between 1833 and 1850. At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 he received one of the five first-class gold medals awarded to British painters. He also enjoyed professional honors in Amsterdam and in Belgium. Among his leading works are The Murder of the Bishop of Liege, The Armourer relating the Story of the Sword, The Assassination of the Regent Murray by Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, and (in oil) A Terrible Secret.
He was largely employed by publishers, illustrating the Waverley Novels and the Historical Annual of his brother Richard Cattermole (his scenes from the wars of Cavaliers and Roundheads in this series are among his best engraved works), and many other volumes besides. He was a friend of Charles Dickens, and collaborated on illustrations for The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. Cattermole was a painter of no inconsiderable gifts, and of great facility in picturesque resource; he was defective in solidity of form and texture, and in realism or richness of colour. He excelled in rendering scenes of chivalry, of medievalism, and generally of the romantic aspects of the past.