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The Grocer Philanthropists

Hugh Pearman

Since the Sainsbury family turned from supermarkets to charity, architecture, art and science have benefited hugely

Heading for the checkout: in the trolley
Heading for the checkout: in the trolley

In 1931 or 1932 – the precise date is not known – Robert Sainsbury, third generation member of the eponymous grocery dynasty, bought a Jacob Epstein sculpture – ‘Baby Asleep’. This was the start of what was to become a highly significant collection. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury came to know, and collect works by, Giacometti, Moore, and Bacon among many others, along with important tribal art. In 1973, once their collection had outgrown their home, they decided to donate it to a new university, and to fund a building to put it in. The University of East Anglia was selected. Norman Foster was the architect, Tony Hunt the engineer. Thus the Sainsbury Centre, Foster’s first important public building, came into being: it opened in 1978, containing UEA’s department of Fine Art as well as the collection. The Sainsburys later paid for it to be reclad (following problems with the original ribbed aluminium-sandwich skin) and then to extend it in the Crescent Wing. Modifications have continued to this day, now under the eye of a younger Sainsbury generation. 


David and Susie Sainsbury: Gatsby Foundation

Of all the many philanthropists who help fund cultural and scientific buildings, the name of the Sainsburys constantly recurs. David (Lord) Sainsbury, son of Robert, and his wife Susie, a former teacher, could be seen up on stage at this year’s Stirling Prize ceremony in Manchester, standing back as always, applauding architects Alan Stanton and Paul Williams who had just won for their Sainsbury Laboratory (RIBAJ March 2012), for plant sciences in Cambridge. The Sainsburys’ Gatsby Foundation, founded by David Sainsbury in 1967, is their vehicle for such funding (it is so called on a whim – F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was David’s favourite book at the time). The Foundation started in a relatively small way, but became turbo-charged when, in 2005, David Sainsbury determined to give away £1 billion – funded by selling a proportion of his shares in the family business, of which he had more than the others - to deserving causes. Like all his family, he had by then relinquished direct control of the retail chain. David went into politics, becoming science minister in the New Labour government of Tony Blair. He stayed there long enough to become the longest-serving member of that government after Blair and Gordon Brown, but quit in 2006 to devote more of his time to philanthropy, in his case both science and arts-related. 

Thus £82m of his Foundation’s money went to build the Sainsbury Laboratory. An alumnus of the university, he was elected its chancellor in an unprecedented four-way contest in 2011, and takes the role seriously: at the time of writing he was touring the US banging the drum for Cambridge. Other universities get a look-in too: now under construction is a collaboration to build the £70m Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, to be part of University College London in Fitzrovia. Its architect is Ian Ritchie, Arup is the engineer. On the cultural side, Gatsby’s support for the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon by Bennetts Associates was crucial to the realisation of that building. David Sainsbury is relatively hands-off, says Bennetts: it’s Susie who takes the close interest in design matters and gets to know the architects, gets stuck in, makes things happen. You hear a similar story about the Sainsbury Laboratory by Stanton Williams. The couple have evolved complementary roles. 

Simon Sainsbury: Monument Trust

The Sainsbury dynasty operates on both sides of the political spectrum. Where David leans to the left, his older cousins John Davan (‘JD’) and Timothy incline to (and serve on) the right. With their brother Simon (now dead) they famously gave around £50m in the late 1980s to enable the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery to be built – thus saving it from its undignified planned fate of being part of an office building intended to fund it. Its genesis was stylistically turbulent – this came at the height of Prince Charles’ traditionalist influence on architecture – but the design by Venturi, Rauch and Scott-Brown finally opened in 1991. 

Well before that, in 1965, Simon had endowed the Monument Trust, which gave away some £100m over the next 40 years and remains active. Among the buildings it helped fund are the Judge Business School (Cambridge again), a vivid reworking of the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital site by John Outram; the Pallant House Gallery extension in Chichester, designed by and housing the art collection of Sir Colin St John Wilson; various projects of the Landmark Trust; the restoration of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields; and post-riot improvements to the Meadow Well housing estate on Tyneside. Simon Sainsbury was the most retiring of the lot, refusing all honours, even a mention in Who’s Who. On his death in 2006, his exceptional £100m art collection was gifted to the National Gallery and the Tate. 


John and Anya Sainsbury: Linbury Trust

There is much more. JD Sainsbury set up the Linbury Trust in 1973 which among much else helped pay for Dixon Jones’ Royal Opera House complex (recognised in the naming of the Linbury studio theatre there). His wife Anya (née Linden) is a former ballerina: ‘Linbury’ merges the two names of Linden and Sainsbury. The Linbury Trust has also given away some £100m during its existence. It was the largest private donor to Rick Mather’s Stirling-shortlisted redevelopment of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. More recently, it went halves with the Monument Trust to give, for instance, £25m to the British Museum in 2010, kickstarting the building of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre by Rogers Stirk Harbour, now well under way. Eric Parry’s well-received Holburne Museum refurbishment and extension in Bath also received Linbury and Monument Trust money – two of nearly 40 charitable trusts and foundations which gave to that relatively small project. 

The next generation

Meanwhile a younger Sainsbury, Alex (son of Tim), continues the family tradition of involvement in contemporary art and architecture. His own 2001 ‘Red House’ in Chelsea is by Tony Fretton; he also developed (and directs) the non-profit, free-entry Raven Row contemporary art gallery in Spitalfields by 6a Architects. It’s a very personal thing: ‘It’s not just a question of signing cheques’, David Sainsbury has said, ‘you have to make a commitment of time and effort to make sure it really runs effectively.’ And there is a clear sense of duty involved, too, the feeling that the privilege of inherited wealth must be used wisely, for the benefit of others. The fact that the whole family won the Carnegie Medal for Philanthropy in 2003 is significant: Scots-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie famously spent most of his life amassing huge amounts of money from the 19th century American steel industry, and the final two decades judiciously giving it all away, often funding key buildings such as public libraries back in the UK.  David and JD Sainsbury are in that mould, as was Simon.


All in all there are 18 active Sainsbury family trusts set up by three generations of the dynasty, some of which you might be forgiven for not having heard of, some of which are very specific.  The Ashden Trust, for instance – established in 1989 – supports research into sustainability. The True Colours Trust (Lucy Sainsbury, daughter of David) tackles disability and palliative care issues, especially child-related and in Africa. And so on.  There is no doubt, however, what the three big hitters are when it comes to funding buildings and restoration. The Gatsby, Linbury and Monument Trusts together amount to an incredibly positive force for good, across the cultural spectrum. They say that the two dominant cousins in this field  – JD (Baron Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG, born 1927) and David (Baron Sainsbury of Turville, born 1940) are the yin and yang, the chalk and cheese, of the family, very different in approach as much as in age and politics – highlighted by the fact that they sit on opposite sides in the House of Lords. JD is also life president of the family business, the only one still to have a role there. But when it comes to giving away their wealth, little separates them.

The family’s younger members are now moving up to continue the philanthropic tradition, but this is not an endless cash cow – the big money comes from the shareholdings of the older family members dating back to the company’s public flotation and its subsequent very rapid expansion. If they keep giving it away, it will eventually run out. David Sainsbury intends, as Carnegie did with his steel wealth, to offload most of his capital fruitfully before he dies.  Thus the dynasty founded by his and J.D’s great-grandfather John James Sainsbury, with his grocery store in Drury Lane in 1869, has yielded a remarkable and still-growing legacy of fine buildings. The original Sainsbury’s dying words in 1928 were: ‘Keep the stores well lit’. The family may not be involved in running the shops any more, but they know all about making illuminating use of their resources.