Sister Wendy's fresh canvas: After her Grand Tour, an even grander idea: the story of painting in Western Europe. Maggie Brown meets the art-loving nun

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tourists loitering in the London hotel foyer suddenly parted as a black-and-white figure rushed forward, came to an abrupt halt and pressed her cheek enthusiastically to mine in the warmest greeting I've ever received from a complete stranger, let alone a nun.

Minutes later and Wendy Beckett, the once reclusive art-loving sister who has launched an amazing television career from her hermit's caravan near the Carmelite monastery at Quidenham, Norfolk, was administering a second shock: tapping a stream of Sweetex into her cup of coffee. All the while she was talking with a pent-up energy but sweet sympathy that comes from a life shaped by silent observation. Her real presence exactly matched her screen one.

'For 20 years I have lived a life of solitude and prayer. And now I'm going to EUWOPE.' With this compressed opening statement, Sister Wendy (who has uncorrected buck teeth and great trouble pronouncing her r's) introduced her 10- part Grand Tour of Europe's finest art galleries, broadcast on BBC 2 in March and April.

That small-scale series (which included sequences such as Sister Wendy saying of the Rubens picture 'Angelica and the Hermit', depicting an old, impotent man confronting temptation: 'He sees the promised land which other men can enter but he cannot'), has led to a far bigger deal. BBC 1's controller, Alan Yentob, announced yesterday that he is giving this television original, aged 63, a wider audience and an ambitious primetime series on BBC 1, devoted to the story of painting in Western Europe. Sister Wendy, who protests that she is a reluctant star, but who is also secure in the knowledge she is doing God's work, is in London to plan the series, which will be filmed next year, with the executive arts producer Nicholas Rossiter.

It emerges that Sister Wendy and the BBC have different ideas about 'planning'. While the BBC believes in careful preparation for a series of 10 40-minute programmes, Sister Wendy likes to record straight to camera, one take, no script, with maximum spontaneity. 'This is rather a strain for the BBC, they never know what I'm going to say,' she observes, 'but the spoken word is so different to the written word.'

While she is in town, the patient Mr Rossiter, himself the son of a painter, has also squired her to several international fairs dedicated to ceramic figures of clowns and shepherdesses and mythical gods, the kind of ornaments that certain classes of Britons like to put in cabinets. Sister Wendy, to the BBC's evident despair, is convinced that these are an unrecognised major art-form, and wants the BBC to make a special programme on them. Meanwhile, she is buying pieces as an investment for the convent.

The producer's first duty when on location with Sister Wendy is to take her to early-morning Mass. If this 6.30am date is missed, or she is late, she cannot function properly, Mr Rossiter says.

While she has become more versed in the ways of the world since the BBC took her up three years ago, enjoying good wine and food when offered (Mr Rossiter took her out for her first pizza), he also describes a scene in Rome when she refused to get out of the taxi to visit St Peter's - she was there to work, not to sightsee. And she likes lapsed Catholics on the production team: they represent a challenge. During our interview she breaks off to instruct me gently on what the Roman Catholic rite of confession should be for a small child. 'Have you been selfish, have you not helped the world to be more loving: it's not about being sorry about breaking a cup.'

She says she 'loathes' the name Wendy, which her mother alighted on because of the Peter Pan story: she chose to become Sister Michael of the Archangel when she took vows, because he was the one who fought with the Devil. This toughness was apparent in an interview on Terry Wogan's show several years ago in which she took Cliff Richard to task for saying the Bible's teaching was that God did not intend women to be priests. 'That was the understanding of the times, dear Cliff,' she explained.

The task in the forthcoming series is to engage a large audience, of perhaps five million, but not to lecture. In the Grand Tour series she stood before three paintings per art gallery and told their story. It really was her first visit to Europe - her extensive knowledge and insights have come from studying books and reproductions: you don't need to travel, you can learn all you need from postcards, she says firmly.

She divides art into great art, minor art and non-art. Damian Hirst's dead sheep is an example of a 'one look work', while she likes lifelong works, to which, like the novels of Jane Austen or Shakespeare, you can repeatedly return.

Her favourite artist is Cezanne. 'He does fill me with enormous bliss, a completely satisfactory painter.' Velazquez is a close second, and she also loves Lucian Freud. She tries to steer away from the Impressionists, because everyone loves them already; she has little time for Van Gogh, and admits to not caring about the Pre-Raphaelites - 'I like the jewel-like precision, but there is a lack of imagination, a lack of poetry.'

Her thesis, with its lack of emphasis on the traditional movements so loved by art historians, is that painting through the centuries does not get better or worse: cave art, with which her series will start, ranks among the greatest art.

'She enjoys her fame, but what she would really like to do is go back to her caravan and lead a life of contemplative prayer,' Mr Rossiter says. 'That's the most important thing for her.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments