We said farewell to a number of members of our art family in 2018—and, as has become something of a tradition, we’ll be celebrating their lives during the Spectrum 26 Awards Ceremony at the Folly Theater in Kansas City March 30. But today I wanted to note the passing of someone who was an influence in a number of ways, not for anything she painted or drew, but for the way she helped others understand the art they were looking at: Sister Wendy Beckett.
Wendy Mary Beckett was born in 1930 in Johannesburg and from an early age knew that she wanted to become a Roman Catholic nun; at the age of 16 she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (a teaching order) as Sister Michael of St. Peter. She became Sister Wendy after Vatican reforms relaxed formalities. Along with her faith she was also in love with art and read about it voraciously; eventually she wrote a book, Contemporary Women Artists, which caught the attention of a producer at the BBC. In 1991 she was persuaded to host a documentary about Britain’s National Gallery and talk about its collection. Sister Wendy may have seemed an odd choice for a host and more than a bit eccentric, but she had a natural flair for gently dramatic presentations that ultimately made art of all kinds accessible to the general public. People loved her and the TV ratings proved it. Her charming, totally unscripted, insightful commentary—a blend of history, criticism, and softly candid observations—connected with audiences and made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic. She subsequently wrote 25 more books and hosted three wildly popular multi-part documentary series, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey in 1992, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour in 1994 and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting in 1996. Through it all she maintained her modesty and humility—of her fame she once said, “Nothing is more humiliating than being on television. You make such a fool of yourself.” And, of course, she never got rich from her celebrity and remained a nun, living till the day she died in a small mobile home on the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in the village of East Harling, England.
So here’s to Sister Wendy. If you are unfamiliar with her (or are and want to get reacquainted), this first episode of Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting will be a nice introduction. You can find the rest of the series here.