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.
Table of Contents
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
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?
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, 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
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 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
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