This collection contains over 1400 items spanning 5000 years, with artefacts from prehistory through to the late 20th century, and from across the globe.
There are major holdings of art from Oceania, Africa, the Americas, Asia, as well as the ancient Mediterranean classical cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and Medieval Europe.
How the collection began
Sir Robert Sainsbury started collecting art around 1929. His first major purchase was a bronze head of ‘Baby Asleep’, from Jacob Epstein.
Sir Robert talked about his passion for collecting being like an artistic instinct, with a ‘gut feeling’ guiding his choices.
The Sainsbury’s friendships with artists
When Robert married Lisa van den Bergh in 1937, art collecting became a joint venture. The couple enjoyed building friendships with individual artists, often collecting their early works.
The Sainsburys always remained fiercely independent in choices and would never buy something for its value or fashion.
Why the collection is of international importance
The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection is one of the few intact modernist collections of the 20th century.
The collection contains many seminal works of European modern art, by major artists such as Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Francis Bacon, Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani.
The Sainsburys also collected many artefacts from cultures around the world, at a time when successive art movements also began to engage with works of art from beyond Europe.
This ‘world art’, largely from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, was previously (and unfairly) labelled as ‘tribal’ or ‘primitive art’. Sir Robert increasingly saw such works as of equal status to European art, reflected in how the collection is displayed today.
From 1973 to 2006
In 1973 Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury donated their collection to the University of East Anglia and their son, David funded the building to display it on the campus.
From that date, the collection continued to grow. After Sir Robert died in April 2000, Lady Sainsbury continued to acquire pieces, particularly Japanese antiquities, up until 2006 when she ceased to collect.