Sister Wendy Beckett 1930–2018

Sister Wendy Beckett, 1930–2018


Wendy Beckett, art historian and critic, former contributor to ArtReview, TV presenter and nun, died on 26 December, aged 88.

Born in South Africa in 1930, Wendy Beckett entered holy orders at the age of 16 and studied at Oxford in the 1950s, moving to South Africa to teach. In 1970 she returned to Britain due to ill health and joined a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, living alone in a caravan in the monastery grounds. It was only in the 1980s that she began to write about art – her first book, Contemporary Women Artists was published in 1988, in which Beckett discussed artists such as Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois and Alice Neel. 

Noticed by a BBC producer, she became the star of the TV series Sister Wendy‘s Odyssey, in which Beckett visited art museums and talked to camera about her favourite works of art, ranging from the renaissance to contemporary art. Dressed in her nun‘s habit, she appealed to an audience not always comfortable with the changing tone of contemporary art, or its often sardonic and self-conscious TV critics. Genteel, enthusiastic and accessible, Beckett's style won her a large following, with Odyssey often claiming a quarter of UK TV ratings. Other series followed through the 90s, including Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (1994) and Sister Wendy's Story of Painting (1996). By the 2000s, failing health led her to wind down her TV work, though she continued to write and make periodic TV appearances.

Through 1993 and 1994, Beckett contributed her ‘Masterclass’ articles for Art Review, in which the critic profiled the work of living artists. ArtReview has gone back to the archive and is republishing a piece from the October 1993 issue of Art Review, on the British painter Prunella Clough. Read it here

2 January 2019