Art Nouveau and start of modern age celebrated in Norwich

In the region that gave Art Nouveau its lowest ebb almost a century ago, the Sainsbury Centre is now celebrating the world's first modern design style. IAN COLLINS reports.

The Sainsbury Centre is making amends for East Anglian history. For our coastline once saw the lowest ebb of the Art Nouveau style now being hailed in the modernist Norwich treasure house.

Then again, even in that fateful winter of 1914-15, when the greatest British practitioner of the prized art form was being persecuted in Walberswick, in nearby Aldeburgh a small boy was picking up pebbles which would lead to a mania for collecting and conserving.

Let me explain – with the worst bit for us first.

In July 1914, Walberswick was once again the centre for an annual summer art colony, with artists of all kinds drawn especially from London and Scotland.

Fra Newbery, head of Glasgow School of Art, was presiding over a creative party of family and friends, including a genius in retreat if not decline.

The tide was fast turning against Art Nouveau which had been the last word in 1890s avant-garde style and had then taken the Edwardian world by storm. And Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh was all but beached.

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In the city of Glasgow he had done so much to beautify ugly rumour circulated that the master of sublime line was all but lost to drink. In the end he and his faithful wife simply fled.

Suffolk provided only a brief refuge, for the party broke up in August with the outbreak of the first world war. Charles and Margaret stayed fatefully put – working on a German commission for an album of floral watercolours.

Although the project was never completed, the delicate pictures the couple made in Walberswick – with Margaret possibly deserving most credit – are among the greatest achievements of Art Nouveau.

But as an odd-looking outsider who flouted blackout rules, and even wandered with a lantern in the dunes at night, and then received mail from enemy territory from artist friends in the Vienna Secession, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was just asking for trouble.

He duly got it when he was arrested for spying.

Although high-powered friends came to his rescue, at a time of national hysteria he was banished from the coastal eastern counties. He went on to London, and later died exiled in France.

But around the time of that expulsion young Colin Anderson was pocketing stones at Aldeburgh, where granny Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had been the first British woman to serve as a medical doctor and a local mayor.

Adding to an inherited fortune, the future design director of the Orient Shipping Line progressed to splendid collections of contemporary art and antiques, and to serve as an outstanding cultural patron.

By 1960 Sir Colin and Lady Anderson had their pick of grand galleries, but hunted down gems of unloved Art Nouveau in junk shops and on market stalls. On a return trip to Aldeburgh they bought a clock and a pair of candlesticks for a fiver.

In barely a decade they amassed one of the most exquisite and extensive private collections in the country.

By then times had changed and a design style flourishing in Sir Colin's infancy was again all the rage.

And then in 1978 the Andersons gave their finds – hundreds of pictures, pieces of furniture, glass, ceramics, jewellery and metalwork – to the Sainsbury Centre, being impressed by the emerging display and study space on the UEA campus around the wide-ranging collection formed by another husband-and-wife team, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury.

Now highlights of the centre's holdings are set alongside major loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Glasgow School of Art and private collectors for the show The First Moderns: Art Nouveau Nature to Abstraction.

The launch display in the centre's new Modernisms series is perfect for director Paul Greenhalgh. He curated the V&A's vast Art Nouveau show a decade ago.

And anyway it proves that Art Nouveau (New Art) was the first self-consciously modern design style. It grew from numerous movements in Europe and America with their own innovations and influences, but most aiming idealistically to improve or transform society.

Designers such as Mackintosh, Emile Gall�, Louis Majorella, Ren� Lalique, Josef Hoffman, Alphonse Mucha and many more drew on the works of Charles Darwin to aim for greater naturalism in art and life.

The thesis of the new display is that sinuous plant, bird and insect forms – and flowing female contours perhaps sprouting angel wings – gradually gave way to geometric forms which then fed into machine-age Art Deco and the International Style.

But looking at these gorgeous objects we may now see a fatal contradiction in their making.

Artists who thought that art could change everything for everyone, left a legacy of some of the most luxurious bibelots ever created.

? The First Moderns: Art Nouveau Nature to Abstraction runs at the Sainsbury Centre until December 4, free admission, 01603 593199,