Born in St Ives, Cornwall, which remained his home throughout his life, Lanyon was a well-known member of its artist colony.
After taking painting lessons after school with Borlase Smart throughout 1936, in the following year, Lanyon was accepted into the Penzance School of Art. Further study was undertaken at the Euston Road School in 1938, where Lanyon was taught and nurtured by Ben Nicholson, Adrian Stokes and Naum Gabo. Lanyon made his first construction in 1939, though his artistic pursuits were put on hold during his service with the Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1945.
Lanyon’s first solo show was held at Lefevre Gallery in 1949. Selected exhibitions from his lifetime include the West Country Landscape, the Arts Council Tour of 1953, the Redfern Gallery, 1957, and the Tate Gallery in 1963. Lanyon was a founder member of the Crypt Group in 1946, exhibited with the Penwith Society in 1949 and taught at Bath Academy of Art from 1950 to 1957. He was elected a Member of the Newlyn Society in 1953 and ran the St. Peter's Loft Art School, St. Ives, with William Redgrave from 1955-60. His first solo show in New York was held in 1957.
Lanyon's work is found in many public collections, including the Tate Britain and the Yale Center for British Art. Private collectors included David Bowie. Retrospectives of his work have been held at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester in 1978, and the South Bank Centre in 1992. More recently, in 2010, a major exhibition of his work was held at Pallant House Gallery, Sussex.