Someone once tried to market the Victoria and Albert Museum as “an ace caff with a museum attached.” She must have got the idea at UEA: the Sainsbury Centre has been that for 30 years without the least attempt at marketing. Its leaky roof was fixed even before that. There are few more inspiring places to be on a typically wet summer day. On fine days at any time of year it’s even better.
Visitors need to know that parking just opposite the entrance is free if they ask for a pass at reception. While road works are in progress it’s necessary to drive past the main entrance, turn right and look for the diversion signs. Then it’s a journey right through the site, ignoring other car parks, turning left to follow the bus route until the road seems to end. In fact it’s another left turn on to a one-way road past the entrance with the car park on the left. It has a disabled bay too.
The building is instantly recognisable once on this one-way route, quite distinct from the concrete university buildings of a kind John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter called “white tiled” as opposed to red brick. A glass wall is sheltered by a canopy on metal frames, similar to Stansted Airport terminal, another Foster design. There is a sculpture on grass that turns out to be the roof of the Centre’s basement exhibition space.
An exhibition called “Francis Bacon and his Masters” had closed just before we visited, and works were being packed in the basement. They were probably en route to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, where much of the exhibition belongs. But temporary exhibitions are only part of the wealth offered by the Sainsbury. Once inside the biggest problem is where to begin.
After an hour’s journey our solution was simple: coffee and a bun. The choice is from the small bar beyond reception or the large restaurant beyond the study centre. That had always been my choice when on courses there, so naturally we took it. Diets of all kinds are catered for, and visitors are invited to ask advice. That was especially useful once before, with a friend who needs a gluten-free diet. Prices are reasonable too.
The collection encompasses the ancient world and modern and contemporary art. It includes Francis Bacon and living artists as well as Stone Age artefacts. For a year or more now the large Matisse bronze relief torsoes have been on loan. It isn’t permitted to photograph these but anyone who knows them has a good idea how they would fit into the displays of ceramics of all ages and a range of modern paintings and prints. The view through the glass cases brings the landscape in.
My particular pleasure was the displays of Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, with whom he worked after the Second World War. To earn a living Lucie Rie ran a ceramic button factory, and it’s good to see some of those products alongside her elegant bowls. Also fascinating were the works by Edmund de Waal displayed with Lucie Rie, and to see how she must have influenced him.
Near the modern ceramics were some ancient ones, including Egyptian and Central or South American. Not merely eclectic, the Sainsbury collection brings this diversity into context for comparison. It needs emphasising that the Sainsbury is a study collection as well as a public exhibition.
Beyond the modest shop the main collection is entered past sculptured heads of Lisa and David Sainsbury. There too ancient and modern, western and eastern are ranged together. I partcularly enjoyed the tiny Inuit carvings on display before the life-sized “Bucket Man”. Degas, Picasso and other masters are in evidence, and the near contemporary scene is exemplified in Chillida and Saura.
There is always the chance to wonder at the simultaneous expression of similar ideas in different continents and the historical sequence (with no chance of influence) in stone, bronze and metal.
Advice on visitng museums is (like driving) to take a break for refreshment. Cue lunch, and very enjoyable it was, especially with the view of a magpie apparently in conversation with a Henry Moore reclining figure. Refreshed, we managed another temporary exhibition, showing the influence on John Golding (died 2012) of various modernists, from Russian vorticists, through Sonia Delaunay and Dutch geometrical styles to American abstract expressionists.
A wonderful place for any kind of weather, it is beautifully placed literally within its environment. For those lucky enough to study visual art there, even better. For the rest of us, the benefit is free admission, except for some special exhibitions like the Bacon or the magnificent “Treasures of East Anglia” a couple of years ago.