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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wendy Beckett

Sister Wendy Beckett in her starring role as seen on PBS.
My introduction to Wendy Beckett
Years ago (1998), when I first began writing for the Internet, I didn't have the modern-day convenience of Wikipedia or the dozens upon dozens of other wonderful websites from which to glean the content of my daily musings. The delivery came from me but the content came from books. It was easy at first. Nearing the end of my teaching career, I had in my brain some 26 years of art history lectures delivered mostly to middle school and high school students. I wrote on that level. There were no photos to augment the text, and the writing was quite often "conversational" (to put it in the best light). Eventually I embraced a volunteer editor in New England and a photo editor in Florida, both of whom were immense assets. I had the further asset of a sizable library of art history books, many leftovers from my college days or my years teaching art history and appreciation at a community college. Eventually however, having wrung these texts dry, putting together three or four coherent paragraphs about art grew to be more and more difficult. I went in search of new material. Among my discoveries, was the book, Sister Wendy's History of Painting (left).

Sister Wendy Beckett (top) was already something of an upper middle-class household name from her shows on the BBC (above) and in the U.S. on PBS when I began exploring her books. Although I knew her by name from TV, I "discovered" her through the written word. She's written no less than fifteen books on various art and religious subjects. She writes and speaks carefully and with great intelligence, but she never speaks down to her audience. Instead, she seems to naturally "sparkle." Her ebullient personality might well be the one quality explaining how a cloistered nun could become a TV "star." There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands of art experts from erudite university professors to old pensioned-off high school art teachers like myself who can speak intelligently about art. But there's only one Sister Wendy.
Sister Wendy's "caravan," Quidenham,
Norfolk, England
Wendy Beckett was born in 1930 in South Africa, but raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where her father was studying medicine. She wanted to become a nun from childhood, and at the age of sixteen, joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an order dedicated to education. She completed her novitiate at St. Anne's College in Oxford where she graduated with honors in English literature. From there she moved on the Notre Dame College of Education in Liverpool to do graduate work. Then it was back to South Africa and several years teaching at an all-girls school while lecturing at the University of Witwatersrand. In 1970, chronic ill health brought her back to England where she took up residence at a Carmelite mission in Norfolk, residing in an ancient "caravan" (house trailer in American jargon). It was a life dedicated to God, prayer, and silent contemplation. She recently celebrated her 83rd birthday.
Sister Wendy on American art.
Sister Wendy made her television debut in 1991, narrating a documentary for the BBC on the London National Gallery (Click here for Sister Wendy's story in her own words.). What followed were six, ten-minute films on discovering hidden art treasures and a loyal following among British and European art lovers. From this success, PBS brought her to America for Sister Wendy's American Collection, a series in which she visited six American art museums to talk about that art within their wall which she liked (and that which she didn't like as well). She visited the Met in New York, the MFA in Boston, and Chicago's Art Institute, as well as the LACMA on the west coast, the Kimbell in Texas, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Today, Sister Wendy no longer does TV or writes books. She still does the occasional magazine article but by and large (a favorite phrase of hers) she has returned to the solitary, contemplative life of prayer, art, and silence. Her only benefit from her publishing and television excursions into the outside world is a newer, slightly larger version of the proper, English mobile home.

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