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Arnolfini - est 1961

In the second of his series, Phil Owen, Collaborations Producer and Arnolfini fount of all knowledge, shares with us more memories and images from our extensive archive.

We would be delighted to hear any memories you may have of Arnolfini that you’d like to share with us. Please email Phil at the address below.


Arnolfini at Bush House
For many, Arnolfini is synonymous with the grand, early nineteenth century warehouse on the corner of Narrow Quay where we’ve been based since 1975. But Bush House is actually the fourth building we’ve occupied. And when we first opened, in 1961, the warehouse – and much of the dock – had fallen into dereliction.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to a person who was key to Arnolfini being able to move in to Bush House, John Pontin OBE. I recorded him for a series of oral history interviews I was making with people involved in Arnolfini in the early years.

He first encountered Arnolfini in its first home, a small space over a bookshop on the Clifton Triangle, where he bought a painting by local artist Derek Balmer. Coincidentally, he had started his own design-and-build company, the JT Group, in the same year as Arnolfini opened. Recognising how the ambition of Arnolfini’s founding Director Jeremy Rees (who he described as ‘an exceptional client’, and how he impressed he was by ‘his degree of resolve, and his passion for what he was doing’) was outstripping the scale of the premises then in use, he facilitated Arnolfini’s tenancies in two larger premises: first, in 1971, a building on Queen’s Square, where Royal Oak House is now, and where Arnolfini’s bookshop and music programme first began; and then in 1973, the W-Shed, now home to the Watershed, where film was first added to Arnolfini’s programme.

I have read in Council of Management minutes in our archive that Arnolfini had been thinking about Bush House as a potential home as early as 1967. But John told me that he personally first became aware of its availability in 1973. Prior to the building being listed, the city council had been considering plans to knock it down and build a road connecting The Grove to Hotwells. The process of conversion was a complex and expensive one (finances for Arnolfini’s contribution came in part from Peter and Caroline Barker Mill, the artist/philanthropist couple who supported several art organisations in the city). John explained how the exterior of the building – being of considerable heritage significance – had to be supported with scaffolding, while the cast iron interior structure was removed and replaced with reinforced concrete. The photographs accompanying this article go some way in showing what a dramatic process this must have been. Less complicated from an engineering perspective, but no less impactful, was the cleaning of the stone, after more than a century weathering the sooty air of a commercial dock. John described the visual transformation as ‘magical’.


And he, more than most, will have noticed the difference. John grew up ten minutes walk away across The Cut, in Southville Place. He described Bristol’s then-industrial docklands as having being ‘his playground’ when he was a little boy. Him and his friends would steal Indian maize from barges moored in the shadow of Bush House, to feed the pet pigeons and rabbits they kept in their back yards. He was philosophical about the significance of Arnolfini in his career, how he regarded it as the most important building project he had been involved with.

I can dream, I can be free-flowing seemingly because I am where I am, relating to the water, the place I was born, and the buildings that were here when I was born, and the community around enjoying what they have to enjoy. It’s difficult to imagine that there are many places in the world where it would be somehow more rewarding to be in. It’s got everything for me, literally it was my playground as a kid. I can’t believe the good fortune I’ve had, and still have to be part of such a unique piece of urban development.

A really good source of further information about the history of Bush House is here:

There is a large amount of material about the 1970s redevelopment of the building, including photographs, in Arnolfini’s archive at Bristol Archives. Please see the online catalogue or contact for further details.

Bush House’s inclusion in a series of Royal Mail postage stamps celebrating urban renewal projects in 1984.