I don’t know how many people knew of her, Sr. Wendy Beckett was probably the most unlikely TV personality of my generation. She was the art historian who explained art for a number of years on the BBC but if you’re from the United States you probably caught her program on PBS. At least I did. She passed away on the 26th of December. She was 88 years old.
The Daily Mail had a great obituary, from which I’ll quote but I do think there was one error in there which I’ll get to. First let’s outline her television career. From the Daily Mail:
Her world-famous alter ego was a cult figure with a high voice, huge glasses and very large teeth who presented series such as Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (1992), Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (1994) and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996) which often drew a 25 per cent share of the British viewing audience and saw her hailed by critics as the best talking head on art since Kenneth Clark.
Because as well as being exceptionally clever and perceptive, she was a natural broadcaster — needing neither script nor autocue, she became known as ‘One-Take-Wendy’ — and made art fun, inspirational and, for a nun who has sworn a vow of chastity, surprisingly accessible.
Her two front teeth definitely altered her speech, but I have to say it gave a certain charm to her. She grew up having those teeth and what she considered a plain face.
Wendy Beckett was born in Johannesburg on February 25, 1930, the daughter of Aubrey Beckett, a banker-turned-doctor and his wife Dorothy.
The 12th-century saint and martyr, Thomas a Becket, was an ancestor and Samuel Beckett the playwright and author a distant cousin. She spent her early childhood in South Africa, before the family moved to Edinburgh to further Aubrey’s medical training.
Wendy was a solitary, sickly child with a weak heart, a plain face — ‘I was an extremely unattractive child’ she said — and a name created for the character in Peter Pan that she hated because it sounded too ‘trivial’. She was anything but.
Being related to both Thomas a Becket and Samuel Beckett was startling to me, but I guess it makes perfect sense. If religious faith and literary interests are genetic, then she was true to her distant relatives. Her faith was deep and it started at an incredibly early age.
Her connection with God started when she was barely three and eating her Sunday sausages to the strains of a military band in the Meadows area of Edinburgh.
‘I realised then that God was there and life was going to be wonderful,’ she said.
Her parents were not overtly religious, but the nuns at school inspired her. ‘It was clear to me that this was what people did who wanted to belong completely to God,’ she said.
Her faith never wavered and, aged 16, and with her parents blessing (‘It’s just as well you look good in black,’ said her mum ), joined the Sisters of Notre Dame in East Sussex. She took the name Sister Michael and didn’t see her family again for three years.
‘After six months, I was given the habit — oh glorious day!’ she said.
She went on to teach, but that wasn’t conducive to her skills and her health. She suffered from epilepsy and a heart attack, and decided that she couldn’t handle the stress of teaching.
It was only in 1970, when she started suffering stress-induced epileptic fits that she was allowed to return to England as a Reverend Mother to live a contemplative life of prayer in the teeny second-hand caravan she bought for £50 and parked in the grounds of the Carmelite monastery.
There, on top of her meditation and hours of prayers, she started translating Medieval Latin to make a contribution towards the monastery’s overheads.
She completed five full volumes before suffering a heart attack. When she recovered she was given permission to write spiritual meditations on contemporary art — her great passion.
Some were circulated among a small circle of acquaintances and came to the attention of Delia Smith, a Catholic who became a great friend. Delia took her to art galleries and was so impressed by Wendy’s writing that, in the late Eighties, persuaded the Catholic Herald to publish them.
And that is how she got her start in television, all the while living as a hermit. But while the Daily Mail article provides a wonderful retrospective, I think there’s an error in there. It claims Sister Wendy was a Carmelite, and that was what I had always thought. But the Los Angeles Times obituary, another fine read, claims she lived at a Carmelite monastery but was in fact technically a hermit. Yes, there are actually hermits in this day and age. She lived apart and by herself. From the Los Angeles Times:
In the early 1970s, she was released from her vows as a Sister of Notre Dame and changed her religious status to “consecrated virgin,” with the blessing of the Vatican. From then on, she was not a member of any religious order but continued to wear a homemade black habit, a variation on the one she wore as a Sister of Notre Dame.
Asked once to explain her choice, she said, “I am a nun. I will always be a nun.” She had spent more than 20 years in a convent, perfecting the ways of religious life. As a hermit, she did not feel the need to belong to any particular order.
The Carmelites offered her a home on their property and took care of her for the rest of her life. They delivered her meals to the unheated trailer where she slept on the floor, surrounded by towers of art books. She in turn contributed most of her income to the convent.
She really had a charm to her presentations. I kind of blushed sometimes when a nude was in front of her but really my concern for her sensitivity was unnecessary. The LAT obituary has this little anecdote.
For all of her unique features as a commentator, it was Beckett’s ease in describing nude paintings that most confounded her viewers. Standing before a double nude portrait by modern British painter Stanley Spencer, she observed, “I love all those glistening strands of his hair. And her pubic hair is so soft and fluffy.”
I didn’t mean to titillate with that, and I apologize if it offends anyone, but I thought that captured her personality to a tee!
Here is a fragment of an episode. Sister Wendy on “Grand Tour,” here in Rome. Do watch to the end where she captures Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Wasn’t that marvelous. I’ve spent a few hours on YouTube going through some of her episodes. She was a great communicator, passionate in her love of art, and charming to watch.