Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett dies aged 88

Sister Wendy Beckett, the TV star and art historian, has died at the age of 88.

Beckett emerged as an unlikely TV personality in the 1990s through her belief that art belongs to everyone. Born in South Africa in 1930, Beckett spent part of her childhood in Edinburgh, where her father studied medicine. She taught in several cities including Cape Town and Liverpool.

Later in life she gained TV fame hosting programmes for the BBC from galleries around the world. Beckett presented a series of documentaries for the BBC during the 1990s, including Sister Wendy’s Odyssey and Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour. Dressed in a black nun’s habit, Beckett would discuss paintings, without script or autocue.

One of her most ambitious pieces of TV work was Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, a 10-part series that saw her travel across Europe, the Middle East and the US. She also published a book with the same title.

Beckett died at the Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk on Boxing Day afternoon.

Her close friend journalist Xinran Xue said: “It is very sad news. Many people see her as a religious person and she was far more than that. It’s a huge loss for the art world. She was a brilliant art critic.”

Beckett described her childhood as idyllic, where adults never quarrelled or spoke unkindly about one another. “Through my parents’ example there was never any doubt in my mind that God loved us and that it mattered how we behaved,” she noted in her book Encounters with God: in Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary.

She joined a teaching order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur when she was 17 and she said that her father believed should would struggle to adapt to life as a nun as she was so young. Her mother, however, insisted it was the right path for her, describing her as an “odd child” who had wanted to join a convent since she was a baby.

Still as part of the order, Beckett studied at Oxford University in the 1950s and was awarded a congratulatory first-class degree in English literature. She returned to South Africa and taught in convent schools for nearly two decades until her health had deteriorated and her order agreed to send her to live under the protection of the Carmelites in Norfolk as a hermit, devoting her life to prayer.

After studying art in the 1980s, Beckett began publishing articles in the local newspaper. Those led to an appearance on a TV arts show and eventually to five major series, scripted and presented by “one-take Wendy”, as she was known to directors. Beckett had also published several books in the subject, including Contemporary Women Artists.

Beckett’s success led to her having a musical written about her, Postcards from God: the Sister Wendy Musical, created by Marcus Reeves. It ran briefly in a small West End venue.

Beckett made a name for herself with US audiences in Sister Wendy’s American Collection, where she travelled to six American museums to discuss masterworks of painting and sculpture, and Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum, where she explored the institution in Pasadena, California, in 2001, but she retired to a quiet life soon after.

News of her death was quickly met with tributes. Writer Dolly Alderton tweeted she was saddened to hear of Beckett’s death, adding she was “always astonished at her intelligence and humility and tenderness”. Author Sarah Bessey said that Beckett’s “enthusiasm for art history was such a gift”, while Salt, an independent publishing house, noted she was “brilliant at conveying complex ideas with lucidity, enthusiasm and charm”.