Steven’s choice: Professor picks his Sainsbury Centre favourites
As the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich celebrates 40 years, Professor Steven Hooper reveals his favourites from the amazing collection
Ifirst became aware of the Sainsbury Collection in 1972 when I was invited to dinner at Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury’s house in London (they preferred to be known as Bob and Lisa). It was not a large house and everywhere you looked there were wonderful treasures on display. Choosing seven highlights from the collection is a near impossible task, but I have selected pieces which had a major impact on me in 1972 and subsequently during a lifetime of involvement with the collection, particularly since the Sainsbury Centre opened at UEA in 1978.
Bob Sainsbury first met Henry Moore in 1933 when he bought the large stone sculpture, Mother and Child, for £158. This, one
‘Choosing seven from the collection is a near impossible task’
of Moore’s seminal early direct carvings, greeted visitors to the Sainsburys’ house from an alcove within the curving staircase in the hall. However, the work by Moore I would like to highlight is one of his Shelter Drawings, made as a war artist in 1940 during the blitz . This sensitively evokes the trauma of those times through an intimate, almost sculptural, composition. When visiting Moore in the early 1980s I recall him explaining in his bright impish way how, in order not to appear voyeuristic, he would observe a family group sleeping on the Underground platform and then slip round the corner to make sketches.
In the sitting room, placed next to Bob and Lisa’s chairs on either side of the fireplace, were two favourite sculptures – the Khmer torso and the Fang head. The latter was Bob’s first ‘tribal art’ acquisition, in 1935, which he had seen in Paris and which had opened his eyes to the glories of African sculpture – now much lauded but then regarded as rubbish by the British art establishment. The Khmer torso had been admired by Bob and Lisa when in the Eumorfopoulos Collection and they were able to buy it at auction in 1940, when prices were depressed. It is important to remember that most of the great works in the collection – the Moores, Giacomettis, Bacons, Picassos, Modiglianis and the ‘tribal’ works – were acquired on a limited budget. Bob and Lisa were not buying for investment
but to please themselves, and could only afford unfashionable things which had yet to be taken seriously by most of the art world. How times change. In the 1950s, Francis Bacon paintings were stacked up against the wall of Erica Brausen’s London gallery, with no one willing to buy them at £200-300 each. There are 13 Bacons in the Sainsbury Collection, several of them acquired as gifts. The Bacon I have chosen used to hang on the upstairs landing – a portrait of Bob commissioned in 1955 by Lisa, about which the children used to say, “But Daddy, you’ve got no shoulders!”
In Bob’s bedroom stood three great Polynesian sculptures, including the remarkable Rarotongan staff god head from the Cook Islands , originally brought to England in the 1820s by Christian missionaries. Next to the bed was a long display cabinet with a flip-up perspex lid – christened by the children the ‘toy department’ – which held a row of small sculptures from all over the world. Regularly rearranging these was Bob’s particular delight. The little jade Olmec head was among them, made from the most beautiful blue-green stone. He once took it to show Henry Moore, asking him to close his eyes before placing it in his palm. “It must be Chinese”, said Henry, who, although wrong, was immediately enchanted when he saw it.
The antler comb in the form of a bird from North America was a later purchase, in 1983, and shows the interest in animal as well as human forms which is evident throughout the collection. Bob and Lisa have left to UEA, and to the nation, an astonishing legacy of inspirational treasures from all over the world – free for anyone to see and enjoy in the Sainsbury Centre on the UEA campus.
Steven Hooper is Professor of Visual Arts and Director of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas at the University of East Anglia. He was editor of the three-volume Catalogue of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection (Yale University Press, 1997).
The Sainsbury Centre is open Tue – Sun. Admission to the Permanent Collection is free and ticketed temporary exhibitions run throughout the year. Visit scva.ac.uk or call 01603 593199.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of R. J. Sainsbury, 1955, 114.9 x 99.1cm. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2018
ABOVE: Henry Moore, Sleeping Shelterers: Two Women and aChild, 1940, 27.9 x 46.0cm. UEA 93. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore FoundationRIGHT: Female torso, 11th century. Khmer, Cambodia
Reliquary head, late 19th century, Fang people, Gabon, Africa
Small jade head, 900-600 BC, Olmec culture, Tabasco, Mexico
Professor Steven Hooper
ABOVE (L-R): Antler comb, late 18th century, Tlingit people, Southern Alaska, North America; Head of a staff god, c. 1850-1950, Rarotonga, Cook Islands