Sister Wendy Beckett an unlikely TV star

Until she was 61, Sister Wendy Beckett was a hermit living in a windowless trailer, subsisting mainly on skim milk and rarely speaking to anyone.
Until she was 61, Sister Wendy Beckett was a hermit living in a windowless trailer, subsisting mainly on skim milk and rarely speaking to anyone.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Roman Catholic nun's storytelling prowess in BBC documentaries made art accessible to the public and turned her into a household name

Sister Wendy Beckett, a Roman Catholic nun who interrupted a cloistered life of prayer in England in 1991 and soared to international stardom with lyrical BBC documentaries that made her one of the most improbable art critics in television history, died on Wednesday in the village of East Harling, England. She was 88.

Her death was confirmed by the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, England, where she had lived in a trailer for decades, though not as a member of the Carmelite order.

Bending backwards in her black habit in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, gazing up through large eyeglasses at Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, Sister Wendy spoke with a storyteller's wonder at the solemn, sensuous moment on the ceiling as two fingertips near the touch that begat the creation of life.

"Adam's sprawled there in his naked male glory, but he's not alive," she told viewers in 1996.

"All he can do is lift up a flaccid finger and out of the clouds whirls down the God of Power. In his great flying cloak, there's a world. Whether that's Eve or not, there's a human face there looking straight at Adam with the eyes daring him to respond to the challenge. And God's finger touches that of Man."

It was a magical moment of television too. Sister Wendy was small and stooped, with a plain face, buck teeth and a slight speech impediment that rendered R's as W's. But her insightful, unscripted commentaries - a blend of history, criticism and observations on Leonardo da Vinci, van Gogh, Botticelli and other Western masters - connected emotionally with millions in Britain, America and other parts of the world.

By 1997, as she marked 50 years as a nun, the Oxford-educated Sister Wendy had made three television series, the most successful BBC arts programmes since Civilisation, art historian Kenneth Clark's landmark 1969 documentaries.

She had also written 15 books on art and religion, and was a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, featured in articles and mobbed by fans.

She had acquired all the star trappings but a wardrobe adviser - a publicist, an agent to negotiate fees and contracts, and visits with dignitaries such as former British prime minister John Major at 10 Downing Street and Pope John Paul II, who commended her for broadcasting a positive image of the church.

For all her success, she remained a nun with commitments to prayer, solitude (when possible) and vows of poverty. She assigned all her earnings to a Carmelite order that had sheltered her for decades and she attended Mass daily, even when travelling.

Until she was 61, she had been a model of worldly renunciation: a hermit living in a windowless trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in East Anglia, subsisting mainly on skim milk and rarely speaking to anyone. In her passion for self-denial, she had not watched a movie since 1945, visited a museum or even seen a great painting, only reproductions in books.

Still, she was spellbound by art. She read about it voraciously and began writing about it. Her first book, Contemporary Women Artists, was published in 1988.

In 1991, a BBC producer, Nicholas Rossiter, persuaded her to do a stand-up documentary about Britain's National Gallery, talking about its paintings.

She was a hit, a natural if eccentric personality with a gift for drama that made art accessible to the general public.

Following up in 1992, the BBC produced the six-part Sister Wendy's Odyssey, with a wider focus on museums across England and Scotland. It drew 3.5 million viewers and it secured her stardom.

Sister Wendy's Grand Tour and Sister Wendy's Story Of Painting were the other series that followed.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2018, with the headline 'Sister Wendy Beckett an unlikely TV star'. Print Edition | Subscribe