“Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018)” by S.M. O’Connor

Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018), a South African-born English Roman Catholic nun, an art critic and art historian who was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic for appearing in unscripted British Broadcasting Company (B.B.C.) documentaries about famous artworks, and as the authoress of twenty-five books on art and religion, is dead at eighty-eight. She died on Wednesday, December 26, 2018 (the second day of Christmas, known as “Boxing Day” in the United Kingdom) at the Carmelite Monastery Quidenham near the village of East Harling in Norfolk, England.

Wendy Mary Beckett was born in Johannesburg, South Africa to Aubrey Beckett and Dorothy (Sheehan) Beckett on Tuesday, February 25, 1930.  When she was a child, her family moved from South Africa to Edinburgh, Scotland, where her father studied medicine.  Dr. Aubrey Beckett later brought his family back to South Africa.  Wendy Mary Beckett knew as a child she wanted to become a nun and in 1946 at the age of sixteen she joined the Institute of Notre-Dame de Namur, which is a French religious order dedicated to education, especially of the poor.  It was this order that had run her school.  She became Sister Michael of St. Peter.  Dr. Beckett encouraged his daughter to go to college and make sure she wanted to remain a nun.

In 1950, she enrolled at the University of Oxford, where she studied English literature.  As a student, she lived in a hostel for nuns, which she left only to attend lectures.  She lived under a rule of silence.  In 1954, she graduated with top honors.  Professor J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was president of her finals board.  She received a Congratulatory First degree in English.  Subsequently, she attended a teacher’s college in Liverpool, England.  Then she returned to South Africa, where she taught for fifteen years in a convent school in Johannesburg.  At one convent, she rose up to become the Reverend Mother.  She also lectured at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

An epileptic who could suffer seizures if she was exposed to flashing lights, after three grand mal seizures, she requested, and in 1970 received, papal permission to give up teaching and went into seclusion at the aforementioned Carmelite convent in Norfolk, England.  She did not join the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, nor did she join that community.  She was not a cloistered nun, like, say, Saint Edith Stein.  Rather, she lived in a caravan on the grounds of the convent in a life of solitude.  The bishop received her as a consecrated virgin.[1]

The “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council included encouraging nuns to use their birth names, and she consequently became known as Sister Wendy.  She devoted seven hours a day to prayer and two hours a day to work to support herself.  Initially, her work was the translation of old Latin manuscripts.  Her diet, at least by 1997, consisted of a pint-and-a-half of skim milk per day, along with Ryvita crackers two potato chips, and coffee.

She was always interested in fine art.  Her favorite artists included Titian (1488-1576), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Diego Rodríquez de Silva y Velásquez (1599-1660), Goya (1746-1828), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).  In the mid-1980s, she began to write articles for British journals, using books and postcards as reference points for artworks she had never seen in person.  This was her means of earning an income for her Carmelite benefactors.  Her first book, Contemporary Women Artists, was published in 1988.

A film crew who overheard her comments at an art exhibit asked if they could film her, which led to B.B.C. producer Nicholas Rossiter to approach her.  This documentary established the format of her standing next to a work of art and give insightful comments in terms that any reasonably intelligent person could grasp rather than with academic jargon.  Part of the magic of the show was recording her firsthand encounters with artworks in the National Gallery in London she had only previously seen as small reproductions in books and postcards.  The B.B.C. broadcast Sister’s Wendy’s Odyssey, a six-part series that recorded her visits to museums across England and Scotland, in 1992.  Thus, a bucktoothed, bespectacled, consecrated virgin who wore a black-and-white nun’s habit of her own design and whom suffered a speech impediment (as well as epilepsy) became the unlikeliest television star ever.

Writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian, “Because TV presenters can often seem careerist and ambitious, it is those occasional eccentrics, who seem to have stumbled into the industry by accident that audiences find so refreshing.”

The art historian, Sister Wendy Beckett, who has died aged 88, was a prime example of those rare performers… who prove to be a natural in the medium while giving the impression of neither entirely knowing nor caring what TV is.

All of her earnings went to the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  In 1994, the Carmelites replaced the old caravan in which she lived with a trailer that had insulation and a bathtub.  They also built a library hut to house her collection of art books.

The B.B.C. broadcast Sister’s Wendy’s Grand Tour in 1994.  Three years later, the B.B.C. broadcast Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, a ten-part series that showed her traveling across Europe, the Near East, and the U.S.A. to delve deeply into the history of painting.  In the latter year, the Public Broadcasting System (P.B.S.) began to broadcast these documentaries in the United States of America.  She continued to attend daily Mass whether at the convent or on the road making documentaries.

When she was in public, fans quietly approached the sixty-six-year-old “Art Nun” with reverence, a New York Times writer observed in 1997.  That same writer, Marshall Sella noted she had not been inside a cinema since 1945, but liked Star Trek.  At the convent, her only visitor would be a Carmelite nun, Sister Anne Marie, who brought her the milk and mail.  Her daily routine continued to involve seven hours devoted to prayer.  She would spend two hours each day devoted to answering letters and writing books.  When she became fatigued while filming documentaries, as happened at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, producer David Willcock would be the one who pushed “Wens” as he called her, in a wheelchair.  In 1997, HarperCollins published her book The Mystery of Love.

In 2001, the B.B.C. broadcast Sister Wendy’s American Collection, a series in which she profiled six American art museums.  That same year, she announced she would retire as a B.B.C. hostess in part because of her health and in part because she wanted to return to a life of solitude.  She would return to television from that point only as an occasional guest, a part from a telefilm, Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum (2002), which the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena, California commissioned.

Her other books included The Story of Painting, published in 1994; A Child’s Book of Prayer in Art, published in 1995; Sister Wendy’s Book of Meditations, published in 1998; Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces, published in 2000; Sister Wendy’s Impressionist Masterpieces, published in 2001; Sister Wendy on Prayer, published in 2006; Joy Lasts: On the Spiritual in Art, published in 2006; Encounters with God: In Quest of Ancient Icons of Mary, published in 2009; Real Presence: In Search of the Earliest Icons, published in 2010; Sister Wendy on Prayer, also published in 2010; Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints, published in 2013; Sister Wendy on the Art of Mary, published in 2013; Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas, published in 2013; and Spiritual Letters, also published in 2013.  She also wrote The Encyclopædia Britannica article, “The Art of Looking at Art.”

Sister Wendy had “a unique presentation style, a deep knowledge of and passion for the arts,” stated Jonty Claypole, B.B.C. Director of Arts.  “She was a hugely popular BBC presenter and will be fondly remembered by us all.”

One of the best tributes to Sister Wendy came from Salt Publishing on Twitter.  The company stated, “RIP Sister Wendy Beckett: TV art historian dies at 88 – brilliant at conveying complex ideas with lucidity, enthusiasm and charm.”

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


B.B.C. “Sister Wendy Beckett, TV art historian, dies at 88,” B.B.C. News, 26 December, 2018 (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-46687275) Accessed 12/29/18

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Sister Wendy Beckett,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 27 December, 2018 (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sister-Wendy-Beckett) Accessed 12/29/18

Katz, Brigit. “Remembering Sister Wendy Beckett, Beloved Nun Who Made Art Accessible,” SMITHSONIAN.COM, 28 December, 2018 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/remembering-sister-wendy-beckett-beloved-nun-who-made-art-accessible-180971125/) Accessed 12/29/18

Mark Lawson. “Sister Wendy Beckett: an unlikely star with an inspirational faith in beauty,” The Guardian, 26 December, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/dec/26/sister-wendy-beckett-an-unlikely-star-with-an-inspirational-faith-in-beauty) Accessed 12/29/18

McFadden, Robert D. “Sister Wendy Beckett, Nun Who Became a BBC Star, Dies at 88,” The New York Times, 26 December, 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/26/obituaries/sister-wendy-beckett-dead.html) Accessed 12/29/18

Mohdin, Aamna. “Art historian Sister Wendy dies age 88,” The Guardian, 26 December, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/dec/26/art-historian-sister-wendy-beckett-dies-aged-88) Accessed 12/29/18

Sella, Marshall. “You Have a Cold Heart, Degas!” The New York Times, 26, January, 1997 (https://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/26/magazine/you-have-a-cold-heart-degas.html) Accessed 12/29/18

Stanford, Peter. “Sister Wendy Beckett obituary,” The Guardian, 26 December, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/26/sister-wendy-beckett-obituary) Accessed 12/29/18

Weinberg, Kate. “Culture Clinic: Sister Wendy Beckett,” The Telegraph, 8 May, 2009 (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/5286395/Culture-Clinic-Sister-Wendy-Beckett.html) Accessed 12/29/18

[1] There are two types of monks and nuns in Christianity.  Anchorites or eremites (also known as hermits) practice eremitic monasticism, while most monks and nuns practice cenobotic monasticism wherein they live, pray, and work in communities.

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