Obituary: Sister Wendy and the fine art of surprises
Hermit nun was an expert on paintings, and ways of the world, writes Colin Gleadell
Sister Wendy Beckett, who died last week aged 88, first emerged on to the art scene in 1988, with the publication of articles in the magazine Modern Painters and a book, Contemporary Women Artists. As features editor of the monthly gallery guide Galleries Magazine, I managed to track her down to her caravan in Norfolk and persuaded her to write occasional articles on artists she was interested in. I would send her as much visual information as possible by post and a handwritten essay would be returned within a week.
A year later, as the Sister Wendy phenomenon began to take hold, I was also working part-time with the BBC arts producer Nick Rossiter on Relative Values, a film about the art market. The art world being a fairly snobbish place intellectually, Wendy was quite a divisive figure, dismissed by many as a gimmick for publishers to capitalise on. But her potential to attract a wider audience beyond the art world was quickly understood by Rossiter, who asked me about the possibilities of making a film with her.
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I had been prepared for a polite refusal from the hermit nun, but when I asked Wendy if she might consider it, she was surprisingly interested. Surprises, I was to learn, were something Wendy had stored in abundance. So, tasked with making an introduction, I arranged for the three of us to meet for lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club, on BBC expenses. Nick was very excited, saying that even John Birt, the deputy Director-General, had expressed interest.
Beforehand, we decided to ask for a menu and wine list without prices, so she would not feel embarrassed about money. When she arrived, I made the introductions and we sat around a fireplace in comfortable armchairs, while Ronan and Jimmy, the two regular snooker players at the club, paused from their potting to take in the new arrival.
The chef brought us the menu, and Nick asked her whether she would like a glass of wine. It was then that Wendy sprung her first surprise, by pulling a wine booklet out of her cassock to check which was the best wine to drink with the food we had chosen. The second surprise was that she was also quite specific about ordering a pudding wine. We later discovered that one of her closest friends was Delia Smith (who also advised her on her dealings with public broadcasters).
Lunch went absolutely swimmingly for Nick. His Catholic background, his father Anthony Rossiter's eminence as a painter, and Nick's own experiences filming with the Prince of Wales for the documentary A Vision of Britain, all seemed to put Wendy at her ease over appearing on camera with him. Then came the third surprise. As the waiter handed Nick the bill, I was busy chatting to Wendy about her postcard collection and love of Meissen pottery - almost to distract her - when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nick's jaw drop. Wendy had succeeded in ordering each of the most expensive wines on the list without knowing the prices.
Or maybe she did. It was the beginning of an absolutely wonderful cat-and-mouse relationship between her and Nick - a relationship between a brilliant producer, trying, within the context of an informative and broadly populist arts programme, to lead his presenter into dangerous territory such as the "fluffy pubic hair" of a Stanley Spencer nude - and her cunning sidesteps.
By the second, 1994 TV series, when she went on her Grand Tour, she had really got the measure of him. Nick would ask me in advance which were the paintings in which museums that had the greatest potential, and what line of questioning would be most productive. He would then put that painting on the filming schedule list for her.
But every time, Wendy would arrive at a site and tell Nick, without warning, that she had decided to talk about a different painting.
She may have been a nun, but she was well clued up on the ways of the world.