Editor's note: Sister Wendy passed away on December 26, 2018. She was 88.
If you’re lucky, you’ll fall in love during your lifetime. Maybe even more than once, and often when you least expect it. I just did. Internationally renowned art commentator, historian, author and television host Sister Wendy Beckett came to visit my husband and me in Florence, Italy. Truth be told, it was incidental that I was there; she really wanted to meet my husband, the artist, with whom she’s been corresponding for more than five years.
Their relationship began in May of 2002, when Sister Wendy sent a note to the Wickiser Gallery in New York, where my husband was having a solo exhibition. She had seen a photo of his painting Tranquillo (now owned by Sarasota’s Dr. Murf Klauber), in ARTNEWS, and expressed an interest in “seeing more of the work of William Kelley.” Thus the friendship was born.
Since that time, Bill has often sent her photos of his new paintings. She responds with her comments and has written glowingly about the paintings, even calling him “the spiritual son to Cezanne.” His dream was to meet her one day.
In the event you are not familiar with the so-called “Art Nun,” Sister Wendy is arguably one of the top art experts in the world. Pursuing her childhood vocation, she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame at 16 and graduated from Oxford with highest honors in 1953. She went on to live and teach in South Africa and even served for a time as a Reverend Mother. She returned to England in 1970 to live a contemplative life in a hermitage on the grounds of the Carmelite monastery at Quidenham, Norfolk, where she spends the majority of each day in prayer, silence, and solitude, leaving the hermitage only when necessary to tape her television shows.
Reluctantly, she entered the public arena in 1991, appearing on BBC television in a documentary on London’s National Gallery. Popular acclaim brought her back to television as the commentator for Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, six short films about art treasures around Great Britain, and Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour, a series on European art. In 1997, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting expanded her enthusiastic following to include American audiences. Her most recent series, Sister Wendy’s American Collection (2001), takes viewers on a tour of six American museums.
And that’s why it was so incredible that she made this secret journey to Florence. These days she leaves seclusion infrequently, and only for art-related visitations to a "particular art" she has decided on. In this instance, she was going to the Vatican in Rome to complete an audiotape about the Sistine Chapel before continuing on to the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna. My husband and I have been spending about seven months a year in Florence, where he paints and I write. After months of barely legible notes and postcards—her handwriting is atrocious—expressing her desire to come to Florence, Sister Wendy put us in touch by e-mail with the priest, Father Steve Blair, who was in charge of trip planning. The adventure would be easy from now on with high-tech data in play.
Father Steve wrote back that he didn’t know who William Kelley was, but that Sister Wendy insisted on going to his studio and meeting him. We invited them to stay with us, thinking they would, of course, decline.
The next morning, I turned on my e-mail and read with shock and awe:
Dear William and Susan,
Thank you for your kind offer to visit on Nov. 15 and to spend the night. We'd be very happy to accept if it wouldn't be too much of an inconvenience. It conjures up images of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View.
By way of introductions (so you know what you're in for), you, of course, have seen Sister Wendy through her programs and I can only say that she is just as delightful in person.
I think I told you a little about myself, but to re-cap: I'm an Air Force Chaplain/Priest whose home is in the U.K. not too far from the monastery where Sister Wendy lives. I belong to the U.K. Diocese of East Anglia. I met Sister Wendy about seven years ago and we've become good friends since then. The other person who makes up our traveling trio is Rod Stephens, who lives in Irvine, California. Rod and I went to the seminary together and have been good friends for the last 40 years. His work is in art and design of liturgical and sacred space.
Looking forward to meeting up with you. Until then, best wishes.
Two months pass, and the “pastoral visitation” is upon us. I go into meal-planning mode: Will they be here for lunch, late lunch, tea, dinner? Do they have special dietary needs? Does she go to restaurants? I order a ricotta, egg, and tomato quiche from Vivoli and cookies. What do they drink? What do they eat for breakfast? Last-minute check of their accommodations: I fluff pillows and put a vase of fresh flowers, bottled water and glasses, chocolates, and fresh towels in their rooms. I make a trip to San Lorenzo market to buy pecorino cheese, fruit, crackers, salami. I think we are ready but truly have no idea what to expect. William hopes she will like his newest work, which includes some paintings from our recent trip to China.
We meet David, the driver, in Piazza della Republica at 2:45 p.m The visitors are arriving at the train station at 3:24 p.m. We are all ready now, and very excited. Ten minutes late, the sleek train pulls in. We know what Sister Wendy looks like, and we know they have a portable wheelchair. I see them first, behind a pillar.
“Hi,” I say. “You’re an easy group to spot.” She takes my hand, kisses me and smiles her signature toothy smile. I like Father Rod and Father Steve immediately. I can sense their goodness and genuine fondness for this woman they are looking after. “Oh, yes,” she says, still holding my hand, “you can’t miss us—two handsome men and a woman in black.” Merry chortle. “I don’t really need the wheelchair,” she adds.
We arrive at the waiting van, and the two priests pull her up from the chair. “It’s a miracle!” she declares. “I can walk!” I pick up her small travel case and remark on how heavy it is. “Oh, it’s just Sister’s cosmetics and jewelry,” says Father Rod. They’re funny. We like funny. How often do you meet someone and immediately they feel like family? (OK, good family.)
My husband has admonished me to not pull out my camera immediately and start snapping photos. No problem. Father Rod beats me to it and starts shooting photos with his Casio digital the moment he is off the train. Rod is 58, Steve is 59, and Sister Wendy describes herself as a “very old 76 with some health problems.” She has disk problems in her neck, causing limited mobility, and her heart is weak.
We pile into the van and ask if they prefer to go to our apartment and settle in or go directly to Bill’s studio. “Oh, to the studio,” says Sister Wendy. “Definitely the studio first.” The streets in Florence are impossibly narrow and one-way, but at last we arrive. The elevator only holds two, so she and Bill get into the lift and the two priests and I climb the five flights of stairs.
My husband paints a minimum of five days a week in his studio, which is located on the Ponte Vecchio—the oldest bridge in Florence, built in 1345, and the only one in the city that escaped being blown up in World War ll. Now it’s lined on both sides with jewelry shops. It’s located in the heart of Florence, and his studio has a magnificent view of the Duomo.
Bill opens the door and puts the light on. His huge (six-by-seven-foot) canvas of the Great Wall of China dominates the room. “I love it,” Sister Wendy pronounces. “It’s extraordinary.”
Bill and Sister Wendy are drawn to each other in a magical way—and, in fact, they share the same birthday: Feb. 25. My husband tells her it was also his father’s birthday.
“We have an eighth-century English saint named for Feb. 25,” she says. “She’s the patron saint of ulcers and rabies. I was hoping for something a little more romantic, but at least we have a patron saint. And if a mad dog bites you, you’re all set.”
We all crack up. From her sharp mind, charm and keen wit, we have no trouble believing that Sister Wendy had two Irish grandmothers. But even more palpable, an aura of goodness and love surrounds her. I find her more spiritual than religious.
The diminutive nun strolls around the small studio holding Bill’s hand and telling him how much she loves all the work—particularly his golf paintings. “The few times I’ve seen TV, I watch sports. I don’t like tennis, because I don’t like confrontation,” she says. “I like to watch golf and snooker. I love to watch Ernie Els; he’s so graceful.”
She looks at each piece with great care and tells Father Rod to take photos of all of them. “Incredible paintings,” she says. “No duds here.” Bill has a series of three grape paintings that he has just completed. After careful study, she describes the mood of each: “Serene, passionate and dreamy.” She asks which one is my favorite and I point to the “dreamy” one.
A friend had just told me that our new digital camera, recently purchased and never used, takes short movie segments. So I try my hand and manage to get a few short clips of Sister Wendy and Bill. My favorite part of the video is when she faces the camera head-on and says, “It’s so wonderful to have Susan so completely entered into your vision, because when you have to drag along a reluctant partner, it makes all the difference. You need her.”
“You see, Susan,” she says over a cup of tea later that day, “my life is very simple. I wear the same thing and I eat the same food [leftover vegetables] every day. This frees all my time for prayer and creativity.” She explains that she owns two habits, and she is wearing the “good one,” which has many patches. Her pockets are like two saddlebags; she removes the contents and carefully arranges them on our kitchen table to show us: a tiny wooden icon that opens to reveal three portraits of the Madonna, a larger holy painting on wood, a tiny Buddha in a case from Tibet. “I can get through security without a problem because my pockets are deep,” she says.
“She doesn’t miss a trick,” Father Steve says. “Oh, yes, and she has very definite opinions and does not back down. She knows who she is and what she wants.”
The following morning at the Duomo, she says to Father Rod, “I want you to tip the wheelchair so I can see the frescoes on the ceiling.”
“Yes, dear,” he responds, and she laughs.