Highlights of the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich

Art at Sainsbury’s?  Well no. Let me show you my highlights of the Sainsbury Centre Norwich.  Robert and Lisa Sainsbury amassed an art collection and then donated it to the University of East Anglia.  Norman Foster designed a building to house it and that is the Sainsbury Centre Norwich.  No groceries, just art and a rather fine café.

Interior view of the Sainsbury Centre gallery Norwich
Interior of the Sainsbury Centre

Highlights of the Sainsbury Centre

For me the highlights of the Sainsbury Centre begin as you first glimpse the building.  The first time I ever saw it, was from one of the Denys Lansdun concrete walkways leading from the University of East Anglia campus.  It was extraordinary. Even now decades later it remains so. Then you step inside, it is a vast space but also somehow intimate.  Some of my all time favourite objects in a gallery live in the Sainsbury Centre.

Norman Foster Architecture

Red Vladamir Tatlin sculpture outside Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts Norwich
Sainsbury Centre and the Monument to the Third International

Before we get to the art let’s start with the building.  When the Sainsbury Centre opened to the public in 1978 is caused a bit of kerfuffle.  It didn’t look like an art gallery, it looked like an aircraft hanger.  Baron Foster of Thames Bank, as he is now, was then plain Norman Foster.  He was an architect beginning to make a name for himself with a couple of innovative office buildings under his belt.  The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art was his first major public building.  

I remember it opening, it was exciting.  Norwich is a fine City, it has many Norman and medieval buildings.  The UEA itself is a modernist masterpiece by Denys Lansdun but Norfolk residents didn’t actually venture onto the university campus much back then.  We had little to no experience of ‘modern’ architecture.  I loved, still love, the building both inside and out.  Inside it is airy, spacious and calm.  Outside it sits next to the angular concrete Lansdun buildings on one side, whilst on the other it somehow merges into the Norfolk countryside.

Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection

Eclectic is the word that I would use for the Sainsbury Centre collection.  It has 1,400 objects that span 5,000 years. Robert Sainsbury started to collect art in 1929.  When he married Lisa in 1937 the pair continued to amass art.  They had a budget, no more than £1,000 per year.  My favourite?

Egyptian Hippo sculpture Sainsbury Centre
Egyptian Hippo c1880 BC

This figure of a walking hippopotamus is the object that I most covet.  To hold him in your hand and explore his smooth curves must be wonderful.  I would like to keep in my pocket as a talisman.  The hippo is Egyptian dating from 1880 BC.  He was found in a tomb but his significance is not known.  Maybe he was there to protect the tomb or to assist the rebirth of human occupant of the tomb.  What is known that hippos were a hazard to the early inhabitants of the Nile valley as they destroyed crops, so maybe having a hippo in your tomb would scare off other hippos?

Giacometti sculpture of standing woman inside Sainsbury Centre

Giacometti, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon were three artist that the Sainsbury’s especially encouraged and collected.  At one point they underwrote Bacon’s overdraft.  One night when they visited Francis Bacon he had just finished one of his iconic portraits of Pope Innoncent X, he was rather pleased with it and the Sainsbury’s agreed.  As the evening progressed and drink was consumed Bacon changed his mind and decided to destroy the painting, the Sainsbury’s persuaded him to let them take it home, they bundled it into a taxi with the paint still wet.  Today it hangs in the Sainsbury Centre.  Whilst I love both the Bacon Pope and the story it is this Giacometti sculpture that I have devoted hours to looking at. 

Lisa Sainsbury Ceramic Collection

Lucy Rie and Hans Coper pottery collection at the Sainsbury Centre Norwich
Hans Coper pots

Lady Sainsbury collected ceramics as well as other art.  Even though it lives in the same building as the Sainsbury Collection it has a different title.  Whilst I might covet the hippo it is the ceramics that I could spend (have spent) hours looking at.  These pots were made by Hans Coper, Lord Sainsbury actually acquired these and considered them to be sculptures rather than vessels, they are arranged in the way that he chose.  I love the way that you can either focus on the pots or on the Norfolk landscape outside the enormous window.

Lucy Rie buttons at the Sainsbury Centre Norwich
Lucy Rie buttons

Lucy Rie was a close friend of both Hans Coper and Lady Sainsbury, during the war she concentrated on making buttons.  Wouldn’t you just love to have a jacket with these on it?  I confess that I have a selection of ceramic buttons, that have never actually made it onto an item of clothing, their purchase inspired by the Sainsbury Centre collection.

Special Exhibitions at the Sainsbury Centre

In addition to the permanent collection the Sainsbury Centre puts on a selection of extra shows, whilst the main collection is free the special exhibitions tend to need to be paid for.

Visions of Ancient Egypt until 1 January 2023

Ancient Egyptian style has never really gone out of fashion. Visions of Ancient Egypt promises to explore the enduring appeal that Egypt has had on designers. Cleopatra will take centre stage, isn’t she always centre stage, with a special focus on the way that her image has been depicted. King Tut gets a look in too as it is 100 years since his tomb was rediscovered. Visions of Egypt is one my of Exhibitions Worth Travelling for 2022

Sainsbury Centre Sculpture Trail

The Sainsbury Centre sits in the 350 acre campus of the University of East Anglia and the sculpture trail is dotted around those acres.  Look up and you will see an Antony Gormley figure on the top of one of the buildings.  My favourites are the iconic red scale model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (now there is a catchy title) and the Draped Reclining Woman by Henry Moore gang into the cafe.  You can access the trail for free during daylight hours, just don’t climb on the works.

Sainsbury Centre Café

Diners sat in a cafe with a large plate glass window over looking grass, trees and a Henry Moore sculpture Sainsbury Centre
Sainsbury Centre Café

My long love affair with museum cafés began at the Sainsbury Centre.  The food was delicious in 1978 and remains so today.  You sit in front of a vast plate glass wall.  The room flooded with light and the Norfolk weather playing on the sky and trees outside.  There is a Henry Moore to look at near the trees to add extra interest.  

Sainsbury Centre and The Avengers

I confess that the Marvel movies are not my favourite genre but quality time was devoted to them when the teens still required a chaperone to visit the cinema. Imagine my excitement when the Sainsbury Centre made an appearance in Avengers: The Age of Ultron. Not just a cameo role either but as the actual Avengers HQ. A role that it reprised in Avengers: Infinity War.

Visiting the Sainsbury Centre Norwich

  • Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA, Norwich NR4 7TJ
  • Regular buses 22, 25 and 26 run from the centre of Norwich to the UEA campus
  • To drive from the centre of Norwich head west down the B1108, Earlham Road and keep an eye open for the brown UEA/Museum signs.
  • Parking head for P7 free carpark and get a permit from reception, make sure you put it in the car
  • Open: Tuesday – Friday 10am – 6pm, Saturday & Sunday 10am – 5pm
  • Admission: Free
  • Special Exhibitions: Pablo Picasso £13, Scottish Women Artists £9, Visions of Ancient Egypt: £13
  • Members free to visit special exhibitions, Students, Art Fund and under 18’s half price

These are my highlights of the Sainsbury Centre Norwich.  It is a place that I have been bringing the teens to since they were very tiny.   We have spent many happy hours sitting at the tables in the gallery, a piece of graphite in hand drawing our favourite things.  Even after nearly forty years the Norman Foster Sainsbury Centre is still a building that both excites me and makes me feel very calm and happy.

Do you have a modern building that you love?

I grew up in Norfolk and we visit often for check out my post about what to do in the fine city of Norwich. If you are heading to the coast consider a day crabbing at Wells next the Sea or spotting seals at Horsey Gap. On rainy days head to Museum of Time and Tide at Great Yarmouth or explore the joys of Norfolk of the Beaten Track



  1. November 1, 2017 / 3:14 pm

    I love the Sainsbury Centre as well as their chocolate brownies. Looks like you had a fab visit.

    • November 3, 2017 / 11:41 am

      When I grow up it is the kind of collection that I would like to gather

  2. November 3, 2017 / 9:58 am

    What an unexpected backstory. Fantastic.
    And I wondered how they had a Degas, didn’t realise 30 were made.

  3. November 3, 2017 / 12:22 pm

    brilliant little place especially free, it only dawned on me that I have infact been here before years ago, when I visited a friend in Norwich, I was in uni at the time so it must have ben about 6 years ago now! #culturedkids

  4. November 3, 2017 / 1:47 pm

    I could quite happily have that little hippo in my pocket too. It reminds me of a moonstone pig I have that I was given to me as I climbed on to a train in Hanoi at the start of a 2 month adventure by train through Vietnam, China, Mongolia and Russia in 1994. It was given by a guy I’d just met and felt a very close connection to…he’s now my husband of nearly 22 years and I still carry the pig around! But I digress…I love modern buildings (housing art), my current favourite is MuCEM museum in Marseille, all time favourite the Guggenheim in Bilbao and one I really want to visit having driven past countless times…the Confluence Museum in Lyon. #CulturedKids

    • November 3, 2017 / 2:26 pm

      Love your pig story, I can commend the Confluence Museum!

  5. November 3, 2017 / 1:49 pm

    I can’t believe how small the gold figurine was. Looks like a really interesting place #CulturedKids

    • November 3, 2017 / 2:27 pm

      So much to see, I have been times without count and still find new things

  6. November 3, 2017 / 6:15 pm

    Love the Henry Moore statue. And can’t believe how small the gold figurine is. The skill to craft something so beautiful and tiny! And the expression on Degas’ dancer is so serene. What a wonderful collection –
    never knew about it. Thanks for sharing! #culturedkids

  7. November 4, 2017 / 2:11 am

    Oh wow, what an exciting gallery! My favourite from your photos would have to be The Little Dancer Aged 14. But that tiny Hathor statue is just amazing. It makes me wonder just how tiny it is without your magnifying app.

  8. November 4, 2017 / 3:47 am

    It’s so great when you find places that you go back to again and again with the kids. This sounds wonderful and I love that the art is so eclectic. #culturedkids

  9. November 4, 2017 / 3:49 pm

    Wow – an eclectic collection indeed. I would love to have a good explore, and I love seeing your favourite pieces. And ‘kerfuffle’ – I must use that word more! #culturedkids

  10. November 4, 2017 / 10:12 pm

    This looks a great place to visit with the children, I love the hippo too but the little dancer would definitely be a favourite with my girls.

  11. November 4, 2017 / 11:02 pm

    How did I not know this was on my doorstep! Will definitely be making a trip very soon.

    • November 4, 2017 / 11:13 pm

      Glad to be of service! Enjoy your visit

  12. Trish @ Mum's Gone To
    November 6, 2017 / 12:40 pm

    I’m ashamed to say, in all my years in this part of the world, Norwich is somewhere I’ve only been once and I’ve never visited the Sainsbury Centre. I’ve seen Norman Foster’s Riechstag Dome in Berlin but never seen his work in my own neck of the woods. Madness.
    I’m going to put that right, inspired by this post. We are heading to Suffolk in a couple of weeks so I’ll go via Norwich and take a peek.

  13. pigeonpairandme
    November 8, 2017 / 10:45 am

    Ceramic buttons are always beautiful – you must show me your jacket some time! The Sainsbury’s are an interesting family. A granddaughter of this couple went to Uni with us – our other friend now lives in one of her houses! #CulturedKids

  14. November 11, 2017 / 10:45 pm

    You’ve made a lovely selection to tempt us to visit. I’d love to wander round with my 6 year old and discuss some of those pieces. #culturedkids

  15. November 13, 2017 / 9:33 pm

    Norman Foster, or at least his architectural company, was supposed to be responsible for the biggest building in the world, to be built in Moscow. Sadly came to nothing. Love the collection inside this more than the outside I’m afraid. Grew up in a New Town, so I am generally drawn to the pretty in a building.

    • November 13, 2017 / 9:36 pm

      I do like pretty too but sometimes plain is good

  16. November 25, 2017 / 8:35 am

    I had no clue this place existed! How wonderful to get a combination of very old and modern works of art. The gold figurine is incredible and her age is astounding. Looks like an interesting building to explore too, I do like to check out modern buildings. Thanks for linking #citytripping

  17. Clare Thomson
    January 12, 2018 / 8:36 pm

    I’ve never heard of this branch of the Sainsbury Centre either. What a great collection there is! I’ve seen the Degas ballerina in exhibitions before so it would be good to see it here. Those figurines are gorgeous and I love the Henry Moore. Thanks for sharing this on #FarawayFiles

  18. January 13, 2018 / 5:40 am

    Commenting again for #farawayfiles…I have to ask, what is the magnifying app on your phone?!

    • January 13, 2018 / 7:52 pm

      It came with the phone Samsung Galaxy S7, the teens found it when they were exploring my new toy!

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