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Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover and Albania

John Sainsbury, who passed away on 14 January, aged 94, is remembered for his business acumen, but he also had an avid interest in archaeology and the arts. Over his long, active life he had two careers: as the titan that transformed the family grocery firm of Sainsburys into an iconic part of British life, and no less importantly, as a philanthropist who championed all aspects of the arts - ballet, opera, the fine arts, and archaeology.

My father, a near contemporary, all but worshipped his business skill. When Sainsburys built a new supermarket near our home at Chippenham (Wiltshire) at the beginning of John’s stint as the company’s CEO, my father thought its failure was certain. Dozens of small shopkeepers in Chippenham to whom he then sold confectionary and grocery were appalled by the recklessness. Within a decade, as my father said with immense respect, the risk had more than paid off. The small shops were closed. At Chippenham as in many parts, Sainsburys brought an indisputable commercial quality to post-war Britain.

John Sainsbury, centre, with James Wolfensohn and President Berisha of Albania to his right

It was that same sense of quality that John sought in supporting the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera and he (with his brothers) instilled in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. It was all in the detail, he would say. This in practice meant that when, as one of the two founders of the Butrint Foundation in 1993 with Lord Rothschild, he audited the accounts thoroughly but still more thoroughly reveled in discussing individual archaeological trenches – especially in Butrint’s commercial heart, its Roman forum. With the same discipline of a serious investor, he was no less intrigued and pleased by Albania’s progress from pariah state to modern European country.

His annual visits across the Straits of Corfu to Butrint were always extended and completed with fresh fish, lots of local wine, and free-wheeling archaeological talk. The simple treasures from the excavated levels and the stories these told enraptured him. No longer the business titan, he appeared liberated to be a student utterly bewitched by the Roman amphorae trade, and more so by the fact that from the forms and fabrics of these ceramic containers (packaging), the changing historical axes of Mediterranean commerce could be reconstructed.

John Sainbury and Jacob Rothschild talking to the Albanian conservator, Tele Llakana at Butrint, 1995

I shall miss this unvarnished charm and humour as he struggled to relate amphorae and tableware vessels to Butrint and the narrative of Roman history. These were qualities that straddled his two very different worlds. His commonsensical counsel was always refreshing and encouraging. It was made with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, as if to say, commit yourself fully, enjoy the moment, and pursue your dreams.

Archaeology, Albania, and the Unesco World Heritage Site of Butrint owe him a huge debt.


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