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Remembering Sister Wendy Beckett, Beloved Nun Who Made Art Accessible

A surprising rise to fame catapulted her into television stardom, where she used her platform to share artistic masterpieces with the public

Sister Wendy sought to make some of the world's most renowned artists accessible to her audience. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
smithsonian.com

When Sister Wendy Beckett took a rare break from her life of solitude to visit an art gallery, the hermetic nun didn't expect to end up a celebrity. As it so happened, her trip coincided with a visit from a television crew, which was getting ready to film the feminist theorist Germaine Greer. When they overheard Sister Wendy’s musings on the art, the crew members trained their camera on her, kickstarting her unlikely career on the small screen, as host of a series of beloved programs about the world’s greatest artworks.

As the BBC reports, Sister Wendy died Wednesday, December 26, at the age of 88. She had a “a unique presentation style, a deep knowledge of and passion for the arts,” remembers Jonty Claypole, director of arts at the BBC, which broadcasted Sister Wendy’s programs. “She was a hugely popular BBC presenter and will be fondly remembered by us all.”

Sister Wendy never sought a life in the spotlight. Born in South Africa in 1930, and raised in Scotland, she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur when she was just 17 years old. According to the Guardian’s Aamna Mohdin, Sister Wendy’s father worried that she was too young to make such a commitment, but her mother supported the decision.

In the 1950s, Sister Wendy’s order sent her to Oxford University, where she studied English literature and was awarded a “Congratulatory First,” a prestigious honor that is only bestowed upon a select few students. Once she had finished her degree, Sister Wendy returned to South Africa and spent some 20 years teaching in convent schools. But her health began to falter—she was epileptic—and she was permitted to pursue the life of a hermit near a convent of Carmelite nuns in East Anglia.

According to a 1997 New York Times profile, Sister Wendy moved into a rickety trailer in the forest, where she prayed for seven hours each day and subsisted on little more than coffee, crackers and skim milk. She had regular contact with just one other person: the nun who brought her milk and the mail.

In the 1980s, Sister Wendy obtained permission from her superiors to start studying art, which she did by combing through books and examining postcard reproductions of famous works. Hoping to earn some money for the Carmelite order, Sister Wendy began writing about art for British Journals, and in 1988 published her first book, Contemporary Women Artists.

She called her television debut at the Norfolk gallery “the fatal moment,” in her interview with the Times. When Randall Wright, a BBC arts producer, happened to see her on a regional network, he recruited her for a documentary called Sister Wendy’s Odyssey. There Sister Wendy dissected art in various museums around Britain. She knew many of these artworks only from reproductions, and the part of the show’s magic was capturing the moment she encountered these works for the first time in person.

More series followed, including a ten-part documentary that saw Sister Wendy travel to visit artworks in 12 different countries. In a gentle-but-enthusiastic tone, Sister Wendy delivered her commentary straight into the eye of the camera without the help of a script or autocue.

Her favorite artists, according to the Times, were Poussin, Velazquez, Goya, Titian and Cezanne, some of the most revered names in art history. Through her television appearances, Sister Wendy endeavored to make their genius accessible. Speaking to PBS in 2000 about her U.S. series, Sister Wendy’s American Collection, she said, “I hope that everybody who watches it will realize what art has for them; that this is their heritage, that they are foolish not to explore it, and that the exploration is pleasurable.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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