Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK – review

For three weeks in 1933, Albert Einstein, fleeing Nazi Germany for America, stayed in a beach hut near the Norfolk seaside resort of Cromer, attended by two beautiful gun-wielding female bodyguards, while Jacob Epstein came up from London to sculpt his portrait. Soon after, another German exile, 17-year-old Lucian Freud, accidentally torched the East Anglian School for Painting; it relocated happily to a rambling 16th-century estate in Hadleigh, Suffolk, where Freud and his teacher Cedric Morris painted each other’s portraits, and Francis Bacon visited. Bacon returned to East Anglia in 1955 for his only portrait commission, of collector Robert Sainsbury; also done at this time, Bacon’s heads of Lisa Sainsbury, recalling the bust of Queen Nefertiti, emerging from a black background, are among his greatest series.

These works by Epstein, Bacon and Freud are among highlights from a new show marking the 35th anniversary of the donation of the Sainsbury collection to the University of East Anglia. Housed in Norman Foster’s luminous, hangar-like building, opened in 1978, the diversity of the 300 pieces, from indigenous to recent paintings and sculptures, and the unifying display emphasising the power of human imagination across millennia, transformed ideas of art, collecting, and the purpose and organisation of museums.

The Sainsbury Centre, enhanced by Lord Foster’s new galleries inaugurated here, looks as fresh now as then, and this exhibition of works associated with East Anglia embodies its open, inclusive approach. Roman and Celtic fragments, Anglo-Saxon jewellery, the Bury Bible, medieval alabaster altarpieces and oak choir-stalls join masterpieces by “local” artists Thomas Gainsborough (“Mr and Mrs Andrews” were Suffolk landowners) and John Constable (expressive oil sketches depicting his childhood home, painted just after his mother’s death), John Sell Cotman’s lovely watercolours of Yarmouth, and contemporary work including “The Longest Journey”, Ana Maria Pacheco’s mournful installation of polychromed figures in a boat found on the Norfolk Broads, and Maggi Hambling’s seascapes: a celebration both of British tradition and eclecticism.

Until February 24,

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