Born in Glasgow. He was the son of Lieutenant George Burnet of the Kirkcudbright and Galloway Militia, a self-taught architect based in Glasgow. John James trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts c1874-77. Afterwards, he joined his father's practice (Burnet Son & Campbell till 1897) and later established a successful office of his own initially in Glasgow (John Burnet & Son) and then a second office in London (John J. Burnet). The latter was set up in 1905 after Burnet had secured the prestigious contract to design the Edward VII galleries for the British Museum (1903/4-14). One of Burnet's key assistants and later partners was the architect Thomas Tait (John Burnet, Tait & Lorne from 1930).
He was also a visitor and examiner to classes at The Glasgow School of Art, performing the following roles between 1882 and 1916:
Examiner for local competitions 1882-1884.
Examiner for local competitions (Architectural Section): 1889-1892, 1897.
Examiner for local competitions (Design) 1891-1893. Examiner for local competitions (Modelling section) 1891, 1892.
Examiner for Haldane bursaries: 1892-1894, 1900. Examiner for local competitions (Antique, life and still life) 1894.
Visitor for Architecture 1893. Visitor and examiner for Architecture 1894 - 1899.
Examiner for Institute of Architects' Prize 1898. Visitor to classes and examiner under local prize scheme (Architecture and modelling) 1901, 1902.
Visitor to classes and examiner under local prize scheme (Design and Decorative Art) 1901.
Examiner for bursaries and studentships (Architecture and Modelling) 1903,1904. Examiner for bursaries and studentships (Architecture) 1904/1905.
Judge for Diplomas, scholarships and bursaries (Modelling) 1909/1910, 1912/1913.
Judge for Diplomas, scholarships and bursaries (Drawing and Painting) 1915/1916.