Armstrong, Robert Williams (1824–84), architect, civil engineer, and co-founder of Belleek Pottery, was born in Co. Longford, son of Francis Armstrong, architect and builder. Despite an early aptitude for pottery, he trained as an architect and civil engineer, exhibiting designs at the RHA (1848–9) and at the Royal Academy, London (1848–57). In Ireland his architectural commissions included St Anne's church, Killygordon, Co. Donegal (1858), and the remodelling of the manor house at Killadeas, Co. Fermanagh (1861×1868). He established a practice with the Minton pottery, Stoke-on Trent, and the Royal Porcelain Works, Worcester, where he gained a knowledge of ceramics, and was employed by W. H. Kerr (fl. 1851–72), a Dubliner who became his friend, his adviser, and subsequently his Dublin agent.
Appreciating the economic potential of the rich natural resources, including deposits of kaolin and feldspar, on the estate of John Caldwell Bloomfield (qv) at Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, Armstrong formed a partnership with Dublin businessman David McBirney (1804–82), and they founded what was subsequently Ireland's most successful pottery at Belleek, trading under the name of D. McBirney & Co. (1857). The factory, designed by Armstrong in the manner of a fine country house, with machinery to his own specifications installed, reflected his architectural skill and his understanding of pottery production.
It began by producing a variety of high-quality utilitarian earthenware, which included domestic and sanitary ware, telephone insulators, and fine stoneware, mass-produced by a mechanical process patented by Armstrong. The aspiration, however, was to produce porcelain. As manager and art director, Armstrong experimented with and supervised the development of new ceramic wares, designs, and glazes unique to Belleek, and wrote ‘Memorandums of various matters connected with pottery bodies and glazes collected or invented by Robert W. Armstrong commenced at Belleek Enniskillen 1860’. He is credited with the designs of the ‘echinus’-pattern tea and breakfast services and the ‘spider's plate’.
After the recruitment (c.1863) of skilled potters from England (several from W. H. Goss, Stoke-on-Trent), Belleek parian porcelain was perfected: busts, statuettes, tableware and ornaments of great skill, artistry, and varied design were produced, including such notable pieces as ‘The prisoner of love’, ‘Dickens’, and ‘Erin awakening from her slumbers’. Adept at promoting Belleek as works of art, Armstrong successfully sought royal and noble patronage, including that of Queen Victoria and the prince of Wales, and earned the praise of the Art-Journal (1 May 1869), which distinguished Belleek parian porcelain for its ‘lightness of body, its rich, delicate, cream-like, or ivory tint, and the glittering iridescence of its glaze’ (151). It enjoyed a worldwide market, and gold medals were won at the Dublin Exposition (1872) and the Melbourne International Exhibition (1880).
By 1882 the pottery had a workforce of 170 and was at the height of its commercial success when McBirney died; his son Robert determined to sell the pottery, refusing, in the absence of a written contract, to recognise Armstrong's claim to partnership. Armstrong, who had invested all his money in the pottery and faced ruin, resisted the sale and was engaged in a fierce legal battle with McBirney when he died suddenly (27 January 1884) at his home in the pottery grounds. The pottery was closed and subsequently sold to a group of local businessmen (1884), who paid a paltry sum for patents to Armstrong's widow.
Armstrong married (1848) Anna Langley Nairn (1828–88), artist; they had at least four children. She was born in Dublin into an artistic family, granddaughter of John Henry Campbell (qv), and daughter of George Nairn (1799–1850) and Cecilia Margaret Campbell (qv). She gained a reputation as a landscape painter in oils and watercolours, exhibited at the RHA (1844–8), and is credited with the designs of some of the early ornamental porcelain incorporating marine and botanical motifs. Her work overlaps that of William Wood Gallimore (d. 1891), who had joined the pottery (1863) from Stoke-on-Trent; between them they produced over 500 designs. The Armstrongs’ daughter Katie designed the ‘Neptune’ tea ware.
Several members of the family subsequently emigrated to Australia. The eight volumes of Armstrong's ‘Memorandums’ are in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, Australia; photocopies of seven volumes are in the National Museum of Ireland (one volume being too fragile for copying).