Art at Sainsbury’s? Well no, 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.
NORMAN FOSTER ARCHITECTURE
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. Look this way and you will see a Henry Moore statue, that way and a Francis Bacon painting stares back you.
This gold figurine is tiny, so tiny that I took the picture using the magnifying app on my phone. She is a figure of a Hathor or Queen from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt. That’s around 150BC. How on earth did the craftspeople manage to make such a tiny, beautiful object?
This figure of a walking hippopotamus is not so intricate but it 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 also Egyptian but even older, he dates 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?
One thousand years after the hippo was made Degas created The Little Dancer Aged fourteen. Degas made the original dancer out of wax for the 1881 Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. She was so realistic that audiences were shocked. After Degas died 30 bronze casts were made of the was original and this is one of them.
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.
These are my highlights of the Sainsbury Centre collection. 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?
VISITING THE SAINSBURY CENTRE NORWICH
- Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA, Norwich NR4 7TJ
- Driving is the easiest, 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
- Bus numbers 22, 25 and 26 all go to the UEA campus from central Norwich
- OPEN: Tuesday – Friday 10am – 6pm, Saturday & Sunday 10am – 5pm
- ADMISSION: Free (there are some special exhibitions that need paying for)
PIN FOR LATER