British photographic history

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For sale: Bristol camera obscura for £1.7 million

If you are looking for a camera obscura you could do no better than buy The Observatory in Bristol which overlooks Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge and Avon gorge. Back on the market at a reduced price the eighteenth century building houses one of the few remaining public camera obscuras. A special covenant relating to the purchase ensures that the camera obscura must remain open to the public. The building, associated caves and grounds are yours for £1,695,000 (freehold) or offers in the region thereof. It was originally on the market for £2 million in 2013 and failed to find a buyer. 

The Observatory occupies a site of great historical interest, originally an Iron Age lookout post and a fortified Roman camp. The existing building was originally built as a windmill for corn in 1766 and later converted to the grinding of snuff. This was damaged by a fire in October 1777 when the sails were left turning during a gale and caused the equipment to catch alight. It remained derelict for some 52 years until artist William West rented the old mill as a studio in 1828. It was Mr West who installed telescopes and a Camera Obscura, used by artists of the Bristol school to draw the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods well before the construction of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The Camera Obscura is situated on the top floor and is still in full working order giving an impressive bird’s eye view of Avon Gorge, projected onto a 5 ft concave metal surface. Leading to the Camera Obscura, there are two circular rooms which would eminently suit visiting art exhibitions, especially with the historical connection to the artists who used this bird’s eye vantage point to capture on canvas, the dramatic Avon Gorge. 

Mr West also built a tunnel from The Observatory to St Vincent’s Cave, which opens onto a limestone cave on the cliff face of the Avon Gorge. The cave was first mentioned as being a chapel in the year AD305 and excavations, in which Romano-British pottery has been found, have revealed that it has been both a holy place and a place of refuge at various times in its history.

The building that now stands on the site has only been sold on two occasions since it was constructed in 1766 and is now designated as Grade II*. 

The Royal Photographic Society is close by in Bath and the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock.

Read the full specification here. 

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