News / Lisa, Lady Sainsbury (1912 – 2014)

Lisa, Lady Sainsbury (1912 – 2014)

It is with great sadness that we have received the news of the death of our benefactor, Lisa, Lady Sainsbury. Lisa died peacefully on 6th February 2014, at the age of 101.

Together with her husband, Sir Robert Sainsbury, Lisa founded the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. It was opened in 1978 to house the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, together with reception, exhibition and teaching facilities. Thanks to their unfailing support, guidance and inspiration, it quickly became internationally renowned both as a University and as a public facility. For this we are deeply indebted. 

We lost Sir Robert in 2000 and now, with Lisa’s death, we mourn the passing of this pioneering era of artistic patronage. Lisa’s range of interests made a distinctive contribution to the Centre and its developments in research and collecting. The generosity of the Sainsbury gift and the Sainsbury family’s continued support, have ensured that a wide public is now devoted to the Sainsbury Centre. We are certain that all will wish to join with us in ensuring that the Centre and all its facilities will continue to thrive in memory of both Robert and Lisa Sainsbury.

Lisa, who became Lady Sainsbury in 1969 when Robert Sainsbury was knighted, had a strong commitment to the arts and also to public service and health-care, which went back at least to their marriage in 1937. Together, they became passionate acquirers of art, such that the Collection became known as the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection when the Centre opened in 1978. Bob and Lisa, as they were known, befriended, supported and were guided by many artists, often making purchases early in their careers, as they did for example, for Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and John Davies. They were also pioneering in making significant purchases of works of art from many different cultures and periods to form an art Collection of world-wide focus, unique in the UK. 

Lisa’s particular interests were in painting, and through her influence, they bought works in Paris after the war, by artists such as Genevieve Asse, Charles Maussion and Mubin Orhon. This became in itself a significant French abstract collection. It was typical of her generous attitude to patronage and lack of concern for established reputations, that she bought several works by Philip Stevens a landscape painter who had been an evening course tutor to a member of the one of the staff at their home. Later, with the advice and guidance of a few close and trusted specialists, she became a true connoisseur of contemporary studio ceramics, starting with a large collection of pots by Lucie Rie, who became a dear friend, as did Lucie’s one time protégé, Hans Coper. Having bought his work consistently during the 1970s, Bob and Lisa were in a good position to acquire a large memorial collection after his death in 1981. These two fundamentally important artists set the tone for Lisa in particular to pursue a strong modernist sensibility among other contemporary studio ceramic artists and to contribute an important new aspect to the Sainsbury Centre collections. For Bob and Lisa this did not form a separate ‘craft’ category, but widened the all-embracing category of art by which whole collection was guided. As such, their pioneering attitudes inspired the University to be the first in the UK, to adopt a world-wide approach to research and teaching about art, in and beyond higher education. 

Beyond their interests in the Collection and the Centre, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury enabled the University to establish a strong research culture around it. In 1984, they founded the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (SRU) to be run by its founding director Steven Hooper, who had become a close friend, initially introduced to them because of his grandfather James Hooper’s astonishing collection of art and ethnography. The Sainsburys were prepared to make sacrifices in the interests of their extending benefactions. The sale of their wedding present to each other acquired in 1937, Modigliani’s ‘Portrait of Baranowski’, provided an endowment to fund the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) to be founded in 1999. This was accompanied by a growth in the acquisitions of Japanese art for the Collection, which again, represented Lisa’s particular interests. 

Robert and Lisa’s philanthropy beyond the art world was influenced significantly by Lisa’s taste and interests. She was an orchid collector and following the sale in the 1970s of their country home in Bucklebury, Berkshire, she donated her large collection of species to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, followed by a substantial endowment in 1989, research facilities and a new greenhouse. Lady Sainsbury also supported many hospices including St Christopher’s founded in 1967 in South London by her friend Dame Cicely Saunders.

Sir Robert Sainsbury died in 2000. Lisa is survived by her son, David and two daughters Celia and Annabel. Her eldest daughter Elizabeth predeceased her. She will be greatly missed by all at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the University of East Anglia.