The Bookseller Who Supplied Sister Wendy a Copy of Mapplethorpe’s ‘X Portfolio’ Is Selling Her Library at TEFAF

The TV art historian amassed an eclectic collection of art books despite her vow of poverty.

Wendy Beckett, a British nun, arts broadcaster, and bibliophile. Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images.

When Sister Wendy Beckett, the beloved art historian and broadcaster, died in December, she left behind a massive library of art books. As well as titles devoted to artists down the centuries, Beckett was a keen student of contemporary art, including Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit volume, X Portfolio.

Becket amassed much of her collection at London’s Thomas Heneage Art Books, rarely, if ever, paying for a publication. As a nun, Beckett didn’t have a regular income, so she relied on the generosity of others to build up her collection, which is now on sale on Heneage’s stand at TEFAF Maastricht.

Since 1970, Beckett had lived in a caravan on the grounds of the enclosed Carmelite Monastery Quidenham in Norfolk, in the East of England. She kept her books in a separate library built next door to her mobile home. “I can’t tell you how dirty the books were—covered in cobwebs and spiders. It took a lot of cleaning,” Thomas Heneage told artnet News on the fair’s opening day.

The dealer purchased the entirety of Beckett’s library—about 300 boxes of books—and arranged donations of the publications that had no resale value.

Over the years, Heneage had grown to know Beckett quite well. “She was such fun,” he recalls. “She had a very broad knowledge of the arts and had something interesting to say about almost everything,” Mapplethorpe included.

Heneage was a member of the College Art Association of America, and had gotten in the habit of passing along the organization’s monthly publications to Beckett once he had read them. An issue in 1990 reported the controversy surrounding the cancellation of Mapplethorpe’s posthumous show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Congressional hearings that followed.

Books belonging to Sr. Wendy Beckett being sorted. Photo courtesy of Thomas Heneage Art Books, London.

Books belonging to Sr. Wendy Beckett being sorted. Photo courtesy of Thomas Heneage Art Books, London.

In response to the growing culture wars, CAA published the full set of the artist’s X Portfolio images in one of its bulletins. “My entirely female staff said to me, ‘you can’t give that to a nun.'” Heneage recalled. Beckett, of course, was soon asking after the magazine, and the bookseller was forced to explain why he had not forwarded this particular issue.

“She replied, ‘Oh Thomas, poor Robert. He did get into such a terrible muddle, didn’t he? Please send it to me.’ So I put it in an envelope and sent it off,” Heneage said.

“She’d look at a book and say ‘Oh this is a really beautiful book isn’t it? Oh gosh I’d very much love to have this. Is it very expensive?'” the book seller said. He remembers that she usually got what she wanted even though the price was inevitably too high. The dealers recalls how Beckett she would say: “‘I wonder if anyone would be really generous and buy it for me?’ She’d leave, and about a half an hour later a BBC executive would call up and say ‘Okay, what does Wendy want now?'”

“Wendy was full of surprises,” Heneage added. “She had lots of books on Islamic art, Greek and Roman art and mythology, and everyone from Giotto to contemporary artists like Dale Chihuly and Sean Scully.” At the fair the dealer’s offerings includes box set on Chinese art that belonged to Beckett—but not Mapplethorpe’s notorious portfolio.

TEFAF Maastrict is on view at MECC Maastricht, Forum 100, 6229 GV Maastricht, the Netherlands, March 14–24, 2019. 

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