Sister Wendy Beckett, BBC Star and Famed Art Historian, Dies at 88
Sister Wendy Beckett — the Roman Catholic nun who became an unconventional television star — died on Wednesday at the age of 88
Sister Wendy Beckett — the Roman Catholic nun who became an unconventional television star — died on Wednesday at the age of 88, the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, England confirmed to PEOPLE.
Known for her witty and eye-opening commentary on art, all made while dressed in her black nun habit, Beckett led a series of documentary programs for the BBC in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The programs — like Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour, and Sister Wendy’s Story of a Painting — were immediate hits, often drawing a 25 percent share of the British viewing audience, according to The New York Times. They’re considered the most successful BBC arts programs since art historian Kenneth Clark’s landmark 1969 documentaries, Civilisation.
Becoming a television star certainly seemed like an unlikely path for Beckett — who was raised in Edinburgh — when she joined the teaching order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at just 16.
She was first discovered by a BBC television crew in Norfolk in the late ’80s, when she was asked to comment on an art exhibit about feminist author Germaine Greer, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Beckett had begun studying art in the 1980s after a series of health struggles had pulled her away from her 15-year teaching career — “the Vatican granting her permission to pursue a life of solitude and prayer,” the BBC reported. Prior to that, she had studied English literature at Oxford University and taught in her native homeland of South Africa.
Eventually, she decided to publish an art book to earn money for the convent.
That title, Contemporary Women Artists, was published in 1988. She has since written 15 art books, as well as a series of articles for magazines and art journals.
Even throughout her success, Beckett remained dedicated to the convent. According to The New York Times, she attended mass daily. All of her earnings were also assigned to the Carmelite order.