THE University of East Anglia is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. And a new exhibition at The Sainsbury Centre is doing its bit to put the EA into UEA. Some 270 exhibits from 65 collections have been brought together to celebrate the varied art produced and inspired by Norfolk and Suffolk over the centuries. And they do cover every inch from Sizewell to Holbrook to King’s Lynn. From the Halesworth heiress on her deathbed to a John Piper painting of tiny Hales Church near Loddon. If nothing else Masterpieces gives the lie to any notion that Big Art is about Big Cities.
We’re lured in by “Faces of East Anglia”, with exhibits ranging from a copper alloy head of the Emperor Claudius found in the River Alde, to a bronze bust of Albert Einstein. Immediately it’s clear that we’re not just dealing with paintings. The Team Lotus Formula One car might be a bit of a gimmick, but throughout the exhibition curator Ian Collins gives books, clothing and maps equal billing with more traditional artwork
Broads fans will be glad to see the 19th century classic “On English Lagoons” artfully left open at the beginning of a chapter.
“A miserable day. Of all the melancholy joys of life, perhaps a wet day afloat is the worst,” writes PH Emerson.
We skip lightly through both centuries and themes. Collins delights in unusual juxtapositions. A flint handaxe from 700,000 years ago found on Happisburgh beach, sits next to the similarly-sized “Reclining Figure” by the sculptor Henry Moore. Constable paintings hang next to those of John Crome, a landscape painter of the Norwich School. A storm scene on Yarmouth beach by Crome’s colleague John Sell Cotman is the neighbour of a more famous storm painted off the same coast by JMW Turner.
The 20th century is well-represented. I love John Piper’s dark paintings of churches, but Edward Burra was a new name to me. Look out for Sugar Beet with its ghostly, transparent figures. Why so? “Don’t you find as you get older, you start seeing through everything?” he’s quoted as saying in the accompanying blurb.
Good blurbs are important for us rank amateurs. These ones are good. I particularly enjoyed the guest writers. We have the former Norwich MP Charles Clarke on an 18th century “Prospect of Norwich”, while the thoughts of the Dean of St Edmundsbury sit well next to a modern crucifixion piece by Elizabeth Frink.
I could go on. but you’ll find your own favourites. A Suffolk Horse Fair, Lavenham (pictured) by Mendham-born Alfred Munnings perhaps, or a portrayal of the Battle of Sole Bay by the Dutchman Willem van de Velde.
But just finally, remember “A History of the World in 100 objects” at the British Museum and on Radio 4? Well Masterpieces takes 270 exhibits just for our small corner. But nevertheless it has a similar breadth, depth and sheer ambition. Get along while you can.
* Masterpieces, The Sainsbury Centre at the UEA until February 24th, 2014. Adults £8, family ticket £20.