TAITMAIL Is Mr JD the last of the Medicis?

The death last week of John Sainsbury will not, we must earnestly hope, mean the end of an era of personal and family philanthropy. But it does feel like it.

John Davan Sainsbury - Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover when he was made a peer in 1989 and named for his 18th century Hampshire mansion - was a ferocious businessman who, during his time at the head of the family grocery business (where he was known as “Mr JD”), made it the most successful supermarket chain in the world, worth £11bn when he retired in 1992. Then he turned his mind to what to do with the vast wealth he had accumulated. 

Much of it he gave away, to medical, educational and arts projects, but never indiscriminately. For years he chaired an occasional informal, off-the-record, lunch for journalists and politicians to discuss support for his particular interests. At one of these he was told that the then education secretary, John Patten, had declared that his intention was that schools would not only be available for sponsorship, they could be built privately. The Stowe School alumnus was furious: “You can’t open the education of the nation’s children to the chancers of the marketplace” said this life-long Conservative. It was to be 30 years before a Patten successor, Michael Gove, finally succeeded.

Always an opera and ballet lover John Sainsbury was a frequenter of the Royal Opera House where he met the Royal Ballet ballerina Anya Linden and they were married in 1963. They set up the Linbury Trust, which they operated together as equal partners, to support cultural projects, principally in the arts, dance, museums and heritage. It targets young people’s attainment opportunities – the extras education budgets won’t stretch to - and isolated old people and is currently working on a project with the disabled musicians of the Paraorchestra. Linbury established its prize for stage design in the 80s, and in the 90s built Covent Garden’s much needed studio theatre. There are more Linbury benefactions at Tate Britain, the Museum of London, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the London Academy of Music and Drama, worth about £150m. 

John was one of three brothers, the fourth generation in the Sainsbury empire founded by John James Sainsbury in Drury Lane in the 1860s, each of whom worked for the company all their business lives and each deeply steeped in philanthropy: the youngest, Tim, a one-time Tory minister, endowed places such as Somerset House and the V&A; Simon, who died in 2006, founded the Monument Trust through which he supported the likes of the British Museum, Royal Academy, Tate Modern and V&A to the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Landmark Trust, and also bequeathed his collection of Impressionist paintings to the National Gallery. Their cousin is the former Labour science minister David, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, whose generosity through his Gatsby Foundation is focused on science and technology. It was his father Robert, John’s uncle, who gave the University of East Anglia its Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

But the whole family now has philanthropy through its centre like a stick of seaside rock. To avoid the spotlight on their own giving, they created the non-grant making Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts umbrella for 20 or more separate organisations that share a London premises “to provide economies of scale in the management of the trusts’ activities”; each has its own board and is led by a member of the family. Family trusts are famously reticent about revealing how much they give, but estimates for the Sainsbury family over the last half century hover between £1.5bn and £2bn. 
While other families of cultural philanthropists have been brought down by revelations about their businesses or private lives the Sainsburys’ behaviour has never been questioned, yet the savaging of the likes of the Sacklers, the Rausings, BP and Shell may well be putting other wealthy art lovers off setting up trusts and foundations fearing the scrutiny of social media, just at a time when the arts need them most. It’s to be hoped that they can push those paranoias aside and look at John Sainsbury’s bold example for inspiration.

Left to right, Simon, John and Tim Sainsbury

In the late 90s he rescued the Royal Opera House’s plan to expand and modernise when fundraising had stalled hopelessly short, but his most famous intervention was a decade earlier over the Hampton Site beside Trafalgar Square where the National Gallery wanted to build an extension. The gallery had owned the site since the 50s but had never had the confidence in its independence to start a scheme. In 1981 the government stepped in and announced an architectural competition that would involve rentable office space to raise some of the money. It was won by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, but the project screeched to a halt when the Prince of Wales declared the design “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of an old friend” and the whole enterprise became an embarrassing joke. John Sainsbury and his brothers stepped in with a proposal to the National’s chair, Lord Rothschild, to provide enough funding to build it – without knowing, it was said, how much that would be - and a new competition was launched that was won by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott. The Sainsbury Wing, as it became, was finally opened by the Queen in 1991, at a cost of £33m. 
It was the most dramatic piece of cultural philanthropy since the Medicis, and three years later the National Lottery was introduced that would add billions more to our cultural real estate.
A decade on John was asked what made the brothers do it. "It was a feeling of frustration and shame that our nation could not do what it was so manifestly obvious it should have done for the National Gallery that prompted my brothers and myself to intervene” he said. 

“But we should not have had to. The state of mind in those days was that if the government did not do something, nobody else could.”

With or without the lottery, that kind of private daring for the public benefit should not be allowed to disappear with John Sainsbury.


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