A major exhibition of works of art celebrating the rich and distinctive culture and artistic heritage of East Anglia, from antiquity through to the present day, will mark the unveiling of the newly-refurbished galleries by Foster + Partners at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia, opening on 14 September 2013, is the most ambitious exhibition ever staged in the region and will also be a major feature of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the University of East Anglia.

Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia will present some 250 objects that the region has inspired, produced and collected, as well as treasures that have long been associated with the area, loaned by over sixty major public and private collections including the Royal Collection, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery. The extraordinarily diverse selection of masterworks will range from paintings, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, glass and jewellery to photography, graphic design, fashion and costume, product and textile design. The juxtapositions promise to be spectacular: a flint handaxe worked at least 700,000 years ago will sit alongside an ironstone pebble from the same Norfolk beach carved into a reclining figure by Henry Moore in 1930; striking pre-war posters and prints will hang in galleries with works by John Sell Cotman and John Constable; a masterly Thomas Gainsborough family portrait will be shown alongside haunting images of Edwardian fishermen by Olive Edis; sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink will be interspersed with sculptural works from the Classical, Medieval and Renaissance periods; Ana Maria Pacheco’s mythical party in a gigantic boat will be moored in the East Gallery whilst the iconic Lotus 72 sports car takes up pole position in the West End.

The Happisburgh flint handaxe, dating from around 700,000 BC, is the oldest object in the exhibition and its starting point. Unearthed in 2000 on Happisburgh beach, Norfolk, its find has radically altered historians’ understanding of our past, revealing that Britain was inhabited by humans 100,000 years earlier than previously thought. The axe will be displayed alongside Reclining Figure, carved from an ironstone pebble found on the same Norfolk beach by Henry Moore (1898-1986) in 1930. Moore, one of Britain’s most renowned sculptors, was a frequent visitor to the north Norfolk coast and a close friend and supporter of Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury who gifted their collection to the University of East Anglia in 1973. The depth and breadth of Masterpieces can be summed up in the juxtaposition of these two works.

Norfolk and Suffolk have a rich heritage of sites where treasures, hoards and antiquities have been discovered. One of these remarkable finds is the striking life-size bronze head of the Roman emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 AD). The conquest of Britain provided a military triumph for Claudius who had been perceived as a retiring, scholarly man rather than a leader. Fished from the River Alde, near Saxmundham, Suffolk, in 1907, the head is probably part of a statue taken from the Temple of Claudius, in Colchester, by Boudica and the Iceni tribe when they sacked the Roman capital in 60 AD.

Anyone who has visited East Anglia cannot fail to have noticed the large number of churches in the region: from the tiny family or village parish chapels to the soaring cathedral in Norwich. From the latter comes the Despenser Retable, a painting which dates back to the late 14th century and is a rare survival from that period. Its name derives from the warlike bishop of Norwich, Henry Despenser (1369-1406) who led the fight against the rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Travelling from further afield is the ‘Berger Crucifixion’, named after the Denver private collection of which it is now part. It is the only well-preserved early 15th century English devotional panel painting in existence and is renowned for its outstanding qualities as an image for contemplation. The Talbot dogs, depicted on the tunic of the centurion, suggest it may have been made for the nunnery of Crabhouse, west Norfolk, where Matilda Talbot was prioress from 1395 to 1420.

East Anglia has always enjoyed strong links with the monarchy and a number of works reflect this special relationship such as the silver, gold and bejewelled King John Cup, c. 1325. This King’s Lynn treasure is the oldest and finest specimen of English secular medieval cups, though it dates from more than a century after the crown jewels of King John were claimed by a Wash tide when en route to Lynn. Sandringham, the country retreat of HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, is represented by a number of miniature Fabergé animals, made for Queen Alexandra who had married the Prince of Wales in 1863, including the famed Dormouse. Whilst it may be the smallest exhibit in Masterpieces, it is certain to steal many hearts.

Portraits of Norfolk and Suffolk people feature prominently in the exhibition. Over the centuries, the country houses in the region have played host to royalty, nobility and politicians and this exalted social scene is embodied in a wonderful society portrait of Sybil Sassoon, The Countess of Rocksavage, painted in 1922 by Sir John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) – to be exhibited alongside the fabulous Worth dress in which she is posing. The Countess, later 5th Marchioness of Cholmondeley, was not typical of the English aristocracy. Known for her magnetic charm, she was also a crack shot and an intrepid driver of fast motorcars, but is remembered particularly for her commitment to restoring Houghton Hall in Norfolk to its former glory.

The other end of the social spectrum is vividly captured in the photographs by the pioneering north Norfolk photographer, Olive Edis (1876-1955), recently acquired by Cromer Museum. Gilbert “Leather” Rook is just one of the stunning sepia images of Cromer and Sheringham fishermen included in the exhibition.

A 20th century artist, not normally associated with the area, is the Berkshire artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) who is represented by Southwold, painted in 1937, twelve years after he and his ex-wife Hilda had visited there on their honeymoon. When he painted the picture he was alone, divorced from Hilda and already separated from his short-lived second marriage to Patricia Preece, making this consummate image of a happy family seaside holiday a wistful scene from which the artist himself was excluded.

No exhibition of East Anglian masterpieces would be complete without works by masters of the Norwich School of painters which, founded in 1803, was the first provincial art movement in Britain. John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), a leading member, is represented by probably the finest surviving watercolour of a Norfolk scene, Storm on Yarmouth Beach, 1831, which has been chosen for the exhibition by Norfolk Lord Lieutenant, Richard Jewson. It will be shown next to a great oil painting of Yarmouth from the same year by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The largest exhibit will be The Longest Journey by the Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco (b. 1943), who was Head of Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art (now NUA) from 1985 to 1989. The time she spent in Norfolk inspired some of her major sculptures and the idea of the journey became a central motif in her work. The Longest Journey is made from a 30-foot fishing boat, the Valentina, which Pacheco sourced in 1994 at Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads. The huge, disturbing figures on board have been chain-sawn, hewn, blow-torched, sanded and painted into existence. The Longest Journey has a rich, serious, literary and intellectual frame of reference and its title is from The Ship of Death, one of D. H. Lawrence’s most powerful poems, written when he was dying: ‘Build then the ship of death, for you must take the longest journey, to oblivion’.

A faster journey would definitely be taken in the Lotus 72, a Formula One car designed by Colin Chapman and Maurice Philippe of Lotus for the 1970 season, which was one of the most remarkable and successful designs in F1 history. The car resembled a wedge on wheels inspired by the earlier Lotus 56 gas-turbine model. Driven by Jochen Rindt, it won the Dutch, French, British and German Grands Prix in quick succession. In 1966 Lotus moved to a purpose-built factory in Hethel, Norfolk, a former US Air Force base.

These and other masterpieces will celebrate the cultural achievement of Eastern England through the centuries, as well as the contribution that the UEA and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts have made to the region. The Centre is distinguished for having the largest group of early paintings by Francis Bacon (1909-1992), perhaps the greatest figurative artist of the second half of the 20th century in northern Europe. During the 1950s Robert and Lisa Sainsbury developed a close relationship with the artist, cemented in 1955 when Lisa commissioned him to make a portrait of Sir Robert, the only time Bacon agreed to such a venture. In the same year, Bacon began a series of portraits of Lisa of which Sketch for a Portrait of Lisa, included in this exhibition, is the earliest surviving example. Francis Bacon, who visited Norwich shortly after the Sainsbury Centre opened, wrote to Sir Robert Sainsbury in May 1978: “I went to Norwich last week and saw your magnificent collection of sculptures. You and Lisa have really made a wonderful gift to the nation”. The Sainsbury Collection represents the greatest act of arts philanthropy of the 20th century in Britain and its worth to East Anglia is immeasurable.

Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia will be accompanied by a handsome publication and a diverse events programme including a Masterpieces Lecture series, lunchtime talks, symposia, Creative Studio workshops, film screenings, family activity days as well as ‘Masterpiece Trails’, a partnership project aimed at encouraging visitors to explore works in situ across both Norfolk and Suffolk.