Lanyon, Sir Charles (1813–89), civil engineer and architect, was born 6 January 1813 at Eastbourne, Sussex, third son of John Jenkinson Lanyon, purser in the Royal Navy, and Catherine Lanyon (née Mortimer). Privately educated locally, he was articled under Jacob Owen (from 1832 of the board of public works in Ireland) first at the Royal Engineers department in Portsmouth and then in Dublin. He married (2 February 1837) Owen's daughter Elizabeth; they had ten children, notably his eldest son John, a future partner, and Sir William Owen Lanyon (1842–87), future administrator of the Transvaal in southern Africa.
Lanyon's first Irish appointment, achieved through examination, was in 1834 as county surveyor of Kildare, a post he exchanged for its equivalent in Co. Antrim, based in Belfast, when the incumbent, Thomas Jackson Woodhouse, resigned in 1836. Lanyon flourished, dividing his talents between engineering and architecture, particularly public buildings in Belfast. By 1842 he had built the Antrim coast road (designed by William Bald (qv)) between Larne and Portrush, through spectacular natural surroundings. Lanyon designed the lofty three-arched Glendun viaduct (1837–9) on this route near Cushendun, an early example of his versatile talent for monumental display; the Ormeau Bridge (1860–63) over the River Lagan came at the end of his career as county surveyor.
Lanyon's municipal architecture, rather than the private work which he freely undertook in parallel with his official career, included legal and administrative buildings, particularly courthouses and gaols. He designed his first courthouse in 1838 for Ballymoney in the neo-classical style. His Ballymena courthouse, built 1846, was in the Gothic style. Crumlin Rd. prison, designed 1840–41, was built in two phases (1843–9) in another change of style, this time Italian renaissance. Like Jebb's ‘not altogether unpicturesque’ Pentonville in London (opened 1842; words quoted in Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (ed.), Encyclopaedia of London (revised ed., 1993), 609), and no less stern, it was very Victorian in style but uncommon in prison architecture, which preferred a classical or Gothic aspect. Internally, both prisons conformed to the then fashionable ‘separate system’ of confinement. Lanyon designed the Belfast county courthouse on the opposite side of Crumlin Rd. in 1848, connected with the prison by an arched underground tunnel. His Belfast custom house was built 1854–7.
Lanyon's private work, like his official output, was prodigious in its variety both of commissions and of architectural style, increasing with time into a major practice in which he took on apprentices, and eventually partners. He undertook everything from modest houses to great residences, churches (some free of charge as ‘honorary architect’ to the Church Extension Society), banks, hospitals, schools, and railway stations. In the latter case, the since-demolished York Road station, Belfast (1849–54) was merely one example of Lanyon's extensive railway involvement throughout north-east Ulster from the 1840s, particularly as an engineer. The Belfast & Ballymena Railway, for instance, with his splendid eight-arched Randalstown viaduct (c.1855) on the River Main, became part of a network of lines laid out by him, whose companies variously appointed him consultant, director, and chairman over three decades.
Lanyon's foremost architectural landmarks outside Belfast included his first, Graeco-Italianate, country house at Drenagh, Co. Londonderry, designed in 1839, and his Italianate examples at Dundarave, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, and Ballywalter Park, Co. Down, both palatial by Irish standards and begun in 1847. About 1850 he added conical turrets and a Jacobean exterior to the existing Killyleagh Castle. Co. Down, a topographical statement worthy of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. In Belfast his finest work included the Palm House (1839–40) at the Botanic Gardens, a curvilinear confection of glass and iron designed for execution by Dublin glasshouse builder Richard Turner (qv). It anticipated Turner's phased Glasnevin commissions (1842–76) in Dublin and his Palm House commission at Kew Gardens, London (1844–8). Lanyon's Gothic, neo-Tudor QCB, designed in 1846, presented a long, gloriously red-brick frontage, pink in sunlight with glittering leaded windows, its central entranceway modelled on the Founder's Tower at Magdalen College, Oxford. Of all his works, the adjacently situated Palm House and Queen's University remain Lanyon's most popularly recognised buildings. His since-demolished Deaf and Dumb Institution (1843–5) was built in a style similar to the University, representing the well intended philanthropy of Victorian institutions. His Jacobean-style Stranmillis House, Stranmillis Rd. (1859) for banker William Batt latterly housed the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Until the 1860s Lanyon conducted little business outside Ulster. In Dublin his most obvious visible structure was the campanile (c.1853) at TCD, although he was also partly responsible for the National Gallery of Ireland (c.1856) on Merrion Square.
About 1855 Lanyon took his assistant William Henry Lynn (qv) into partnership. Many private works were designed in the eighteen years of their association, some remaining attributable to the individual partners in their own right. In 1860 Charles Lanyon's eldest son John joined the partnership as a junior, thus renaming the firm Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon. They designed significant architecture throughout Ireland, although mainly in Ulster. In Belfast the firm was responsible for the Linen Hall Library building (1864) on Donegall Square (originally the offices of a textile company) and Belfast Castle (1865). About the same time they designed Shane's Castle, Randalstown, Co. Antrim (destroyed in 1922). In Dublin, the anglican church on Sandford Road, Ranelagh, was remodelled in 1860 and the Sheils' Homes, Stillorgan, part of a series of almshouses, was built about 1870. Commissions were also carried out in counties outside Dublin.
Lanyon retired as county surveyor in 1861 and concentrated on his private business, railway directorships, and local government. The latter occupied much of his later life, as he had built a social and political base as sturdy as his professional network. Since the 1840s he had been highly prominent and proactive in artistic and architectural bodies including the Belfast Fine Arts Society, the Belfast School of Design, the RIAI (of which he was president 1862–8), and the RIBA. He was fellow of the ICEI, ICE, and RHA. On retirement, therefore, he effortlessly joined the Antrim grand jury, became mayor of Belfast (1862), sat as conservative MP for the city (1866–8), and was knighted (1868). He was on several municipal boards and served as JP, DL, and high sheriff of Antrim. He was also an active freemason and was grand master of the province of Antrim for many years. The partnership with Lynn was terminated in July 1872 in contentious circumstances which led Lynn to take Lanyon to court. Lanyon retired from the practice c.1874 leaving his son John to carry it on. His wife had died in 1858 and his son William died from cancer aged 44 in 1887. Sir Charles himself died 31 May 1889 at his home (since 1862) The Abbey, Whiteabbey, Co. Antrim, which he had originally designed c.1850 for Sir Richard Davison, MP. He was buried at Knockbreda parish church, Belfast, in a tomb also of his design.