A Nun Soars From Convent to Stardom

Sister Wendy's TV shows on art have large following

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Sister Wendy Beckett agreed to briefly leave her quiet convent to speak about art on a national television arts program, she had no idea the experience would dramatically change her life.

The year was 1991. The program, broadcast on the BBC-2, the British Broadcast Corporation's more unorthodox channel, featured a slew of well-known art historians and television personalities. But Sister Wendy, a shy figure dressed in her characteristic black wimple, seemed to upstage them all.

Speaking eloquently and articulately, Sister Wendy displayed a passion and knowledge of the artist Rembrandt's paintings that few possess. She also proved she had a natural TV presence, appearing completely at ease in front of the camera and talking without a prepared script or even handwritten notes.

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"She can walk into a gallery without knowing what she's going to say, and she literally speaks off-the-cuff," says Nick Rossiter, the executive producer of three BBC TV programs starring the once camera-shy recluse. "Usually when we film, we have to take two or three takes. But we now call her 'One-take Wendy.' "

But despite Sister Wendy's obvious ability, BBC executives at first were not too impressed. After all, they figured, few viewers would be interested in watching a prime-time TV spot starring a sixty-something nun. Especially a nun with a rather noticeable overbite who wears heavy glasses and no makeup - not even for the camera.

How wrong they were. After the program aired, the BBC's mailboxes were filled with fan mail. To their surprise, the letters were addressed not to the glamorous celebrities, but to direct, plain-speaking Sister Wendy. A star was born.

"There was a remarkable response," recalls Mr. Rossiter. "After she appeared for just three minutes, the press the next day said, 'Give this nun a series.' "

And so they did. The next year, Sister Wendy filmed a series of 10-minute programs about art called "Sister Wendy's Odyssey." (She donates all proceeds to the Roman Catholic Church.) That was followed by "Sister Wendy's Grand Tour," in which she traveled to the great museums of Europe, marveling at the objets d'art she previously had only seen in journals and books.

Her programs differ greatly from the usual "talking heads" format characteristic of similar art broadcasts. Open and unpretentious, Sister Wendy talks to the camera as if it were a casual friend. She also discusses the symbolism of the sexuality inherent in much art, often leaving her audience in awe of the nun who can converse so openly about love between a man and a woman.

When viewer figures reached 4 million, Sister Wendy left BBC-2 for BBC-1, the more commercial channel, for the broadcast of "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting." That series, which ended in September, consisted of ten 30-minute installments covering everything from ancient cave paintings to Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans.

"Sometimes a great wave of revulsion would sweep over me at the thought of having to leave my solitude," Sister Wendy told the BBC, explaining how the series brought a mixture of both happiness and discomfort to her life.

"Then a wave of contrition would sweep over me," she says, "and I'd think, 'If people are actually finding these programs helpful, then I'm not morally at liberty to say I'd rather not do it.' "

It was the "Story of Painting" that brought Sister Wendy, who previously had enjoyed a sort of cult-figure status, the mass acceptance her producers had been working toward. The program, which was filmed in Egypt, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and New York among other places, will air in the United States on PBS beginning this fall.

"I think the American audience, possibly even more than the British, will find her enthusiasm infectious," says Rossiter. "She has such a profound understanding of human psychology, without the historical baggage most art historians have."

Others, however, find her less than informative. "It is always safe to admire Sister Wendy's clarity of expression, but the less sweet-natured (yes, gather round, friends) are bound to ask if this crashingly twee [quaint] nun is the best person to be instructing us on such mighty topics," wrote critic Stephen Pile in The Daily Telegraph.

"Art is, after all, a system for asking questions, whereas religion is in most hands a system for giving answers," he added, calling her grasp of art history "sometimes unchallenging."

But Nigel Billen, TV editor for the Daily Express newspaper, says, "Some people think she is character over substance, and there is quite a lot of snobbery about her. But in fact she is incredibly bright - she has a doctorate from Oxford and is very well read. She probably fits into the category of great eccentrics, and the British do fall for these eccentrics as TV presenters."

"The snobbery she is attacked with is by people who know considerably less than she does," Mr. Billen continues. "It is also snobbery from people inside the art mafia, who find that despite her academic credentials, she bases her feelings on a gut reaction. They think this is all TV can come up with, and [it] is a sad indictment of television. I think that is unfair; she has done a lot to bring a more general appreciation of art to TV audiences."

That Sister Wendy should have such far-reaching impact is rather unusual, considering her cloistered background. The daughter of a doctor, she was born in South Africa. She was raised there and in Scotland, and at age 16 went to England to join a teaching order that had the same nuns who taught her as a child.

Sister Wendy didn't see her family again for three years. She eventually enrolled in St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she studied English, all the while living in a nearby convent and keeping a strict rule of silence. After attaining an honors degree, she completed a teaching certificate and went back to South Africa to teach.

In Africa, Sister Wendy was made a reverend mother, but in 1970 illness forced her to return to England. She chose to reside in a cramped trailer attached to a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, where she spent seven hours of every day in prayer. The rest of the time she studied art - famous paintings from postcards and other reproductions.

Although she loved the art world, from within the quiet of her trailer Sister Wendy worried that it was becoming accessible only to the intellectual elite. After all, she herself never thought she would venture again outside Norfolk, and never thought that her dream of seeing in person the famous paintings and sculpture she had studied so assiduously would be realized.

"That's really why I do it," she says, "for the people who can't go see these paintings for themselves. I'm not a professional art critic; I'm just the same as they are, so hopefully my programs help the ordinary person feel that they could do the same."

"It upsets me very much the way art is intellectualized into some highbrow heaven where the ordinary person just stands there gaping upwards," she adds. "It's not meant to to be like that."

Evidently, her viewers agree. "Sister Wendy is able to demystify life and relationships through art history," says Rossiter, speaking on behalf of all of Sister Wendy's fans.

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