Nun who became one of Britain's most famous art critics

Born: February 25, 1930

Died: December 26, 2018

SISTER Wendy Beckett, who has died aged 88, was a British nun who lived in solitude in the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk. Yet she also led an unlikely dual life, alternating her vocation for a period in the 1990s and 2000s with life as an art historian and television presenter.

Beginning with Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, a series of vignettes aired in 1992, she toured the art galleries of Britain, Europe and America for a decade, offering thoughtful and learned insight upon the classical and contemporary works she encountered with a passion for art she had nurtured since childhood. The reasons for a celebrity so great that she was referred to internationally without need for a surname were many, and partly a reflection of the sheer unlikeliness of a woman in her position – who appeared onscreen dressed in full religious habit – undertaking such a contradictory career.

Yet as a broadcaster and an enthusiastic lover of art, Sister Wendy was mesmerising. Articulate and enthusiastic, her soft speech impediment only added to the hypnotic enjoyment of listening to her speak, her voice ebbing and flowing from a tone of matronly criticism to one of devotional wonder within the space of a sentence. For her, the appreciation of art truly was a religious experience, a way of seeing God through the eyes of those mortals who tried to capture something of the wonder of His creation in the world around them.

“I didn’t want the people who never looked at art and thought it was beyond them to be deprived of such a wonderful gift given us by our artist brothers and sisters,” she once said in an interview with the religious magazine the Tablet. “I knew that if they really looked at art they would see it drew them to something greater than themselves, something beyond, something other, and that something is God.”

Perhaps what surprised viewers most about Sister Wendy was how non-judgemental she was, with a lack of prudishness which blew away any stereotype about someone in her position. She was as likely to be found critiquing the work of Francis Bacon or John Bellany as she was Titian or Rembrandt, and she was serially unshockable; a profile in the Independent reported that “when a journalist once archly referred to ‘naughty bits’, she rounded on him for criticising God's handiwork.”

“If you’re going to enjoy a book you’ve got to set aside time to read that book,” said Sister Wendy. “The same with a painting. You must not expect that you can take a fleeting glance and reach a conclusion.” An example of this rich depth of contemplative thought came in her response to the controversial work Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, an image of a crucifix housed in the artist’s own urine, which has long outraged religious campaigners.

“I thought he was saying… that this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence,” said Sister Wendy of the piece. “It’s not a great work, one wouldn’t want to go on looking at it once one had already seen it. But I think to call it blasphemous is rather begging the question.”

If anything made her the perfect art critic, it was her universality; knowledgeable and forthright enough to gain a foothold in the critical establishment, open-minded in her approach to a range of work from across the centuries, and both recognisable and concise enough to take her passion to a wider audience.

What the viewer saw onscreen in series including Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (1994), Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996) and Sister Wendy’s American Collection (2001) was at odds with the life she lived. Forced to retire from her role as a convent teacher in South Africa due to epilepsy apparently brought on by stress, she moved to the monastery in Quidenham, although she wasn’t a Carmelite; she had belonged to the Roman Catholic Sisters of Notre Dame and received permission to live as a hermit and a contemplative, keeping the same hours as the order in Norfolk while not actually being a member.

In her daily life, she rose at midnight, prayed through the night, ate a simple breakfast laid out by the sisters and read the previous day’s papers (primarily for the obituaries and the sports news; although she didn’t gamble, she studied the form in the Racing Post keenly) and then attended Mass before 9am. Before going to bed around 5.30pm, she ate a lunch of vegetables and crackers, and allowed herself two hours a day to follow her own interests, during which she wrote a catalogue of roughly 40 books on art and religious matters.

Although she rarely left the monastery, it was her friendship with local neighbour and celebrity chef Delia Smith which led to Wendy’s ‘discovery’ by publishers and by television. In her interviews, the sense was that she found her television word “apostolically useful”, but that it was something of a distraction. “If I'd known how much time it would take, I would never have started,” she told the Telegraph. Reports said her substantial fee from the BBC was donated directly to the monastery.

Wendy Beckett was born in South Africa in 1930 to Dorothy and Aubrey, although the family moved to Colinton in Edinburgh when she was two so her father could study medicine. At eight they moved back to South Africa once more, and she recalled her parents having an idyllic although not particularly religious relationship, until her father was called up to the war.

At 16 she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame and moved to London, then Oxford, where she earned a congratulatory first in English Literature (her work was assessed by JRR Tolkien), and then the Notre Dame College of Education in Liverpool, before returning to South Africa to teach in 1954.

She died at the age of 88 at home in the monastery in Quidenham.