Born to an old Cheshire family in Chester proper, Brierly entered the Sass's Art School in London and studied naval architecture at Plymouth. He first exhibited with the Royal Academy in 1839,with sketches of the might of the royal navy. Soon he found his career onboard, sailing around the world in 1841-1843 onboard wanderer.
He settled for a time in New South Wales, Australia, where today there is a point which bears his name, and several of his more accomplished works have found homes in major public collections. His return to England was facilitated by his joining the crew of the royal navy ship RATTLESNAKE in 1848 and then the meander, landing in his native company in 1851. He soon illustrated books about his travels, and began his marine art career in earnest.
His success and artistry earned him the attention of several British royal patrons, including Queen Victoria herself. Primarily working with royal navy subjects, Brierly painted scenes of the Crimean War on the Baltic, and both actions of his days and earlier history. Working equally proficient in watercolor or oil, he exhibited continually with the academy and with the royal watercolor society. He was made marine artist to the queen in 1874 and knighted in 1885.