Laura Freeman enjoys the fruit of Lisa Sainsbury's passion for art
From a corner of Norwich’s market square, you can hail a cab to take you out of the city and along an A-road to the University of East Anglia, where, in an unpromising hangar on the edge of campus, you may travel around the world in 80 minutes.
There are gold weights from Ghana — tiny Playmobil-size figures, exquisitely wrought, playing drums or beating time to unheard music. From Samoa and Tonga there are combs with teeth made from coconut wood, bulbous clay jugs from Ecuador and a fearsome carved hornbill from Papua New Guinea.
In a few paces, you can walk from the Cook Islands to Nigeria, from Greenland to Egypt. When I visited, we had this global cabinet of curiosities to ourselves. While it was an unexpected pleasure to explore the corners of the world in cathedral-like silence (have you ever known the British Museum quiet?) it was sad to see this room of wonders so empty on a Saturday in the Easter holidays.
Lisa Sainsbury, who with her late husband Sir Robert assembled this collection and endowed the Sainsbury Centre, died in February at the age of 101. Together they collected the riches of the world.
Born in England in 1912, Lisa Ingeborg Van der Bergh was heiress to a margarine fortune. She showed little early interest in art. “As a girl, my father dragged us round museums and told us what we had to like and what we shouldn’t and that put me off for a while,” she said.
She married Robert Sainsbury, her second cousin and future head of the grocery chain, in 1937. His collecting mania was catching. Robert called their treasure hunting a “joint unplanned voyage of discovery”.
They set themselves a strict budget: just £1,000 a year at first, £2,000 by the mid-Fifties. They had a knack for spotting future greats when they were penniless unknowns. They bought a Picasso sketch for £85 and Giacometti drawings for £5. Their collection of 13 Francis Bacons cost just £8,000. Bacon painted their portraits: unnerving, vortex faces against dark backgrounds, Lisa’s modelled after the bust of Queen Nefertiti. Dinner guests used to complain that the Bacons put them off their food.
They bought by instinct. When Bob saw his first African piece — a scowling mask from Gabon — in the window of a Parisian dealer in 1935, he had “no choice” but to have it. Lisa had a passion for colour; Bob for line.
In 1973, they gave more than 300 artefacts and paintings to the University of East Anglia and commissioned Norman Foster to design a vast, glass warehouse of a museum to house them. It is an unlovely airport terminal of a building, though it serves the purpose of making even Sir Denys Lasdun’s neighbouring ziggurat-style student digs look homely. The space is unsympathetic to such an idiosyncratic, domestic collection.
There are now more than 5,000 works in the Sainsbury Centre, from distressingly sharp spearheads to serene ibises. Temporary exhibitions, such as the current John Virtue and the Sea, are mounted in a basement gallery.
A photograph taken by Lord Snowdon shows Bob and Lisa, she exquisitely dressed and with her nails painted in mother-of-pearl varnish, perched impishly on a ledge above a staircase. There is the same spirit of mischief in much of what they bought. One of those Ghanaian gold weights shows a slim-limbed couple making love; the Pacific hornbill is devouring a fish, while fending off a smaller bird, which has caught the hornbill’s plume in its beak.
Their collection is the world in miniature. It deserves to be better visited. You leave with Saharan sand in your shoes, Arctic frost biting your fingertips and the breeze of the South Sea Islands blowing in your hair.