Thursday, December 27, 2018

About Sister Wendy (1930-2018) - nun, art critic and unlikely TV star

"Sister Wendy" as she was universally known - a.k.a. Sister Wendy Beckett, variously described as a broadcaster, art historian, art critic, consecrated virgin and hermit - died yesterday age 88 at her home and sanctuary at the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham in Norfolk.

For those not familiar with her, she was a very unlikely star of television who presented programmes about painting and paintings in the 1990s - which became very popular due to her extremely lucid commentary.

In fact their popularity is marked and repeated by the way in which tributes are being written about her yesterday and today.

Her particular talent was to succeed in making art accessible to a lot of people
Unlike a number of presenters who need both 'scripting' and 'editing' (I speak as one who has watched individuals speak about art on screen and in person!), she was capable of walking into a room and just standing in front of a painting and talking about it - unscripted and unprompted, in a way which made complete sense to most people.

Her programmes were the most successful arts programmes made by the BBC since “Civilisation,” the art historian Kenneth Clark’s landmark 1969 documentaries.

Episode 8 of the The Story of Painting
Sister Wendy - in front of Monet's paintings of waterlilies at L'Orangerie
- talking about her experience of the paintings and how Monet painted them
Two of her most memorable programmes were for the BBC
  • Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (1992) 
  • Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996) - which was a series (see below for more)
"Sister Wendy's programmes were so popular that they often drew a 25% share of the British viewing audience." obituary
Sister Wendy, as she was known to her viewers, was a nun who for two decades before becoming a television presenter had lived a contemplative life in a caravan parked in the grounds of a monastery. It was this apparent incongruity, allied to her love of painting, her refusal to indulge in the esoteric jargon and remote theories of art criticism, and the obvious reverence in which she held her subject, that transformed Sister Wendy into one of the more unlikely icons of 1990s television The Telegraph Obituary
In 1997, the New York Times described her as
"a sometime hermit who is fast on her way to becoming the most unlikely and famous art critic in the history of television"
Ten years later, in 2007, I inadvertently stood next to Sister Wendy at an exhibition of Renoir Landscapes at the National Gallery - and only realised who she was when I heard her inimitable voice explaining about the painting to her companion. She was a little frail even then and had an escort with her.

Here's
  • a video of her 17 minute interview with Charlie Rose. She made three appearances in total on 3 October 1997; 18 November 1997 and 19 September 2000
  • links to more videos of her work
  • an awful lot of obituaries - from around the world (below)
  • links to some of the books she wrote or was associated with


Sister Wendy and the story of painting


Sister Wendy had a first class brain but studied art through looking at paintings and reading books. Nobody ever told her what to think. Her lucidity was first recognised at Oxford University where she received a Congratulatory First Class degree in English literature. The latter is a rare distinction which is described thus
"a highly unusual honor in which the examining professors ask no questions about the candidate's written work but simply stand and applaud"
It appears we have Delia Smith to thank for her contribution to art on television and the story of painting. The Guardian obituary tells the following
Her caravan in the grounds of the Carmel was small, cold and basic, but was crammed with postcards and calendars of works of art. Starting in the early 80s, she began to put down on paper – often in close type, squeezed onto the back of a recycled luggage label – her thoughts about paintings that she had only ever seen in reproduction. A visitor to the Carmel, the cook and devout Catholic Delia Smith, was so impressed by Sister Wendy’s writing that in the late 80s she persuaded the Catholic Herald newspaper to publish them as a weekly series. It led in turn to an appearance on a TV arts show and eventually to five major series, scripted and presented by “one-take-Wendy”, as she was known to directors.

She narrated the following documentaries
  • Sister Wendy's Odyssey (1992)
  • Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (1994)
  • Sister Wendy's Pains of Glass (1995)
  • Sister Wendy's Story of Painting (1996)
  • Saints with Sister Wendy (1997)
  • Sister Wendy's American Collection (2001)
  • Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum (2002)
Sister Wendy had a unique presentation style, a deep knowledge of and passion for the arts." Jonty Claypole, the BBC’s director of arts
Somebody has made her story of painting accessible via YouTube - see Sister Wendy's Story of Painting (playlist of 10 videos).  The ten episode series is as follows:

  • Episode 1 - The Mists of Time - Sister Wendy Beckett discovers masterpieces from the time of the cavemen, the world of the pharaohs, and the age of chivalry
  • Episode 2 - A Hero Steps Forth - Sister Wendy Beckett takes a closer look at art in the Middle Ages.
  • Episode 3 - The Age of Genius - Sister Wendy Beckett explores famous works of art in Florence and Rome.
  • Episode 4 - Two Sides of the Alps - Sister Wendy Beckett looks at the Renaissance in Northern Europe.
  • Episode 5 - Passion and Ecstasy - Sister Wendy looks at how the Catholic Church used art to counter the Reformation of Rome.
  • Episode 6 - Three Golden Ages - Exploring the golden ages of painting in 17th century Spain, France and the Netherlands.
  • Episode 7 - Revolution - A focus on art during the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution
  • Episode 8 - Impressions of Light - Sister Wendy Beckett tells the story of the Impressionists.
  • Episode 9 - A New Pair of Eyes - Sister Wendy Beckett traces the beginnings of modern art from Cezanne to Klee.
  • Episode 10 - The Never Ending Story - A focus on the art world that developed in America after the Second World War.

For many years she had a caravan where she kept her art books and wrote about art - which you can see in this video Sister Wendy's Odyssey Art Criticism



Sister Wendy - Obituaries from around the world


First the tweets - which say a lot....  This is a sample from the twitterstream for #Sister Wendy






I'm amazed at the range of publications that have recorded her life and passing. It's no understatement to say that her death is getting bigger and better coverage than the death of some leading artists.

The last time I found myself listing so many obituaries was when Andrew Wyeth died. Maybe there's something in the way both appealed to very many people....

In the UK

Television

Print/Online

Outside the UK

Television

Print/Online


Sister Wendy's Art Books


She wrote a lot (see her Amazon author page).  People loved the way she wrote and the insights into art that she provided. Here are just a few of the books she authored.

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