Remembering Sister Wendy
By Philip Law, her editor at SPCK
In his book Being Disciples, Rowan Williams describes what it feels like to be in the presence of a holy person:
‘A holy person makes you see things in yourself and around you that you hadn't seen before, that is to say, enlarges the world rather than shrinking it. . . . They allow you to see, not them, but the world around them. They allow you to see not them, but God. You come away from them, not feeling, 'Oh, what a wonderful person or persons'; you come away feeling, 'What a wonderful world or what a wonderful God.’ -
Being Disciples (SPCK, 2016), Chapter 4
That is just how I felt when I first met Sister Wendy, back in 2011. I had written to her a few weeks before to ask whether she would be interested in working on an anthology of passages from the Bible illustrated by great works of art and accompanied by her reflections on the text and the paintings. The result was Sister Wendy’s Bible Treasury, which SPCK published in 2012.
I confess to having felt quite nervous about that meeting. I had worked with many authors before, but none that you would describe a national treasure! However, I needn’t have worried. Sister Wendy expressed a serene and affectionate kindness that immediately assured me this was a project that she would take on with joy and enthusiasm. Not only that, she saw at once how the book had the potential to appeal not only to people who already know and love the Bible but also to people who are unfamiliar with its contents. As she wrote to me a few months later, just after the proofs had arrived:
‘May our work which we do for Our Blessed Lord be helpful to those who don't know what he is like.’
That first meeting with Sister Wendy, and then the privilege of working with her and the subsequent success of the book, inspired me to commission more authors who can write books that promote the knowledge of Christ among those who ‘don’t know what he is like’. And that, I hope, will be an enduring part of Sister Wendy’s legacy – to have encouraged at least one publisher to work more creatively on books that enlarge the world rather than shrinking or restricting it (to borrow Rowan Williams’ words).
Sister Wendy’s legacy is, of course, largely bound up in her wonderful books on art history and appreciation, which she has published over the last thirty years. Her initial venture into print happened in the late 1980s. During a visit to the Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, where Sister Wendy lived as a hermit, Delia Smith (the TV chef) was so impressed by Sister Wendy’s unpublished reflections that she sent some of them to the Catholic Herald, who agreed to publish them as a series. This led to her appearance on a TV art show and then to her immensely popular BBC documentary series on the history of painting. She went on to present more documentaries, in both Britain and America – where she was described by The New York Times as 'the most unlikely and famous art critic in the history of television'. Sister Wendy also became the author of over thirty books, including the internationally bestselling The Story of Painting (Dorling Kindersley, 1997).
The last book that Sister Wendy published in her lifetime was The Art of Lent: A painting a day from Ash Wednesday to Easter (SPCK, 2017), which was hailed by another TV art historian – Janina Ramirez – as ‘hugely inspiring, not only during Lent but at any time of the year’. Shortly after it was published, Sister Wendy wrote to me to say:
‘You would be astounded (or perhaps not) by the number of letters I’ve had saying they found the Lent book helpful. It’s such a wonder to know this.’
But the good news for all Sister Wendy fans is that this will not be the last book that bears her name. For before she died on 26 December, Sister Wendy was working with SPCK on an anthology of her all-time favourite paintings. There is still much work to be done to gather the illustrations and edit the text, but the result, we hope, will be an enthralling book that will appear later this year. Lavishly illustrated with 100 masterpieces, dating from the 6th century to the present, it will not only delight Sister Wendy’s many fans but also inspire a new generation of art lovers in their appreciation of the depths and subtleties of some of the world's greatest works of art.
I and my colleagues at SPCK hope and pray that the book will also serve as a fitting tribute to Sister Wendy and all she has done to enlarge our world and our love for its creator.