Remembering Sister Wendy Beckett: beloved Nun, art historian and accidental TV phenomenon

Remembering Sister Wendy Beckett: beloved Nun, art historian and accidental TV phenomenon
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The BBC officially announced on December 26 that Sister Wendy Beckett has died at the age of 88. Sister Wendy was a nun, art historian and critic who found unintentional fame in the 90’s with her popular TV programmes like Sister Wendy’s Odyssey and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting where she sought to make some of the most renowned artists accessible to a wider audience.

When Sister Wendy decided to one day visit an art gallery, the hermetic nun did not expect to become a celebrity. As it so happened, her timing coincided with a film crew who overheard her musings on the art and decided to train the camera on her. This serendipitous act kickstarted her career as a host of a series of esteemed programs about the world’s greatest artworks.

“She had a unique presentation style, a deep knowledge of and passion for the arts,” said Jonty Claypole, director of arts at the BBC, which aired Sister Wendy’s programs. “She was a hugely popular BBC presenter and will be fondly remembered by us all.”

Sister Wendy was born in South Africa in 1930, raised in Scotland and grew up with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She studied literature at Oxford University and later spent over 20 years teaching in convent schools. When her health began to falter due to epilepsy, she was permitted to pursue a life of solitude near a convent of Carmelite nuns in East Anglia. According to a 1997 New York Times profile, this was when she moved into a caravan, prayed for many hours every day and survived on very little.

In the 1980’s, she received permission from her superiors to study art, which she did by reading numerous books and examining postcard reproductions of famous works. With the hopes of raising money for the Carmelite order, she began writing about art for British Journals and eventually published her first book in 1988, Contemporary Women Artists.

When Randall Wright, a BBC arts producer, saw her on TV talking about art on that fateful day, he recruited her for a documentary they later called Sister Wendy’s Odyssey. This sent Sister Wendy to various museums around the UK where she discussed and dissected numerous works. Her experience with these artworks was never first hand as she had only ever learned about them from reproductions. Part of the show’s magic was capturing the very first moments Sister Wendy encountered these works for the first time in person.

Many series followed, including a ten-part documentary that had Sister Wendy travel to 12 different countries and visit famous artworks. Without the help of a script, Sister Wendy would gently deliver commentary straight into the camera.

According to a Times interview, her favorite artists were Poussin, Velazquez, Goya, Titian and Cezanne. Throughout her TV career, she often insisted on making their genius more accessible.

Speaking to PBS in 2000 after releasing Sister Wendy’s American Collection, she famously 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.”