In her new book, the art critic Laura Cumming unravels the mystery of her mother's disappearance one day in late 1929. Five days went by before she was found unharmed, but she remembered nothing of these events and the silence about what happened remained for fifty years when the circumstances of her kidnap came to light. Laura finds clues in everyday objects and crucially the family photo album, and her search for the truth uncovers a series of secrets, betrayals and heartache. Read by Laura Cumming and Susan Jameson.
Costa Biography Award
Judges: “How rare to find a book which is not just edge-of-your-seat gripping but hauntingly and beautifully written too."
As an art critic, Cumming can read an image persuasively, and the book works as a primer on how pictures and paintings inform our existence. She teases out tiny details from old photos about the season and the setting, and uses them to drill deeper into her mother’s childhood. Often an answer hatches a further question – why is there a photograph of Betty and her adopted father George on Chapel Sands at least a year before she was adopted? – but these are the tiny bites through which truth is reached.
On Chapel Sands gives a sense of how trapped people in interwar English villages could be by their surroundings. When Betty goes missing, Veda has to send a telegram for help because ‘they do not have a telephone, and neither do any of their neighbours.’ Until the age of five, Betty shared her parents’ bedroom and Veda washed their clothes using a mangle. There were few books in the house except the Bible and a single romantic novel published in 1921. When she is a little older, George decides that Betty should learn to play the piano, but they can’t afford one, so he draws a keyboard for her on paper, colouring the black keys with grey graphite pencil. He made her a cardboard chess set the same way. When she was small, he also made her models to play with, including a miniature replica of the family home in St Leonard’s Villas ‘complete with one-inch balconies and cutlery soldered out of hairpins’.
The story, beautifully written, is enriched by Cumming’s skill at making pictures speak. A distinguished art critic, admired for her capacity to make us attend closely to what images can tell us, she turns her eye upon the family photographs that constitute one of the main sources of evidence for what happened. Snapshots of her mother as a little girl at play reveal truths not only about the subject but also about the photographer, her father George. Loath to be photographed himself, he loved taking pictures of his daughter, and his centrality to the story emerges out of his own efforts to efface himself... As a detective, Cumming enjoys the requisite combination of tenacity and good fortune, and the reader stays with her at every step. She has a light touch with social detail, and she is honest about her own motives and the power of her own imagination.
I hardly dared hope that such an old mystery, where most of the protagonists are dead and those that aren’t remain tight-lipped, would be solved. Cumming’s achievement is in doing so whilst also writing a profound and beautiful book... In telling two tales – that of her mother’s childhood and her own story of how the truth was eventually unravelled – Cumming illuminates the darkness of secrets, shame and betrayal and their effects in a riveting book.
Laura Cumming’s new book, On Chapel Sands, also uses photographs, paintings and everyday objects in an attempt to resolve a 90-year family mystery: the kidnapping of her mother, then aged three, from a deserted Lincolnshire beach one warm October afternoon in 1929. The result is a deeply felt, forensic yet ultimately empathetic examination of human motivation and its attendant sorrows, which is as much a social history of the early 20th century as it is the story of one family and its secrets... Cumming’s previous work, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), was a fascinating art-history-cum-thriller about a Victorian obsessive who risked everything to prove the provenance of a portrait of Charles I. In On Chapel Sands she employs similar dexterity to write a detective story that is much closer to home. Her intermeshing of art, time and memory is superlative. Dotted through the book are the few faded black-and-white photographs documenting Betty and her parents’ lives – including a stunning image of Veda taken by George in early marriage, which Cumming rightly compares to the domestic interiors of Vermeer (the person behind the lens, as well as the camera’s subject, will come to be of huge significance as the book progresses).
On Chapel Sands is, above all, a moving tribute to Cumming’s stylish, artistic, Chanel No 5- and turquoise jewellery-wearing mother. Whatever her origins (and there is a touching surprise at the end of the tale that almost feels like the beginning of another search altogether), she was also, like all of us, entirely and completely herself. She once took Cumming out of school to go to a Vuillard exhibition – and this book rather resembles a Vuillard painting itself. It is intimate and yet, at a slant, draws in a larger web of moments beyond the limits of the frame.
On Chapel Sands is a mystery solved through empathy and interpretation. It feels as if this is the book Cumming has been working towards, a deeply personal story but one that also draws on practised skills as a critic and a writer. It is perfectly balanced between the requirements of its narrative and the expression of its author’s passions. It is a moving tribute from a daughter to her parents and grandparents. It is beautifully written. And at its heart is Cumming’s belief in interpretation as a process of understanding, not just of art but of our lives and actions. Interpretation breathes life into the picture.
After the silence is broken, the fragments pieced together, a void remains at the heart of this exquisitely wrought story of maternal and filial love and loss. It is in images — two photographs taken by George, for much of the narrative a domineering and repressive figure — that Cumming at last finds the missing piece: a redemptive moment of grace that unites the child and her fractured family
The book is a love letter to her mother, whose warmth, articulacy and survival instincts shine through. It’s also an intimate portrait of a village community, with its storybook characters (butcher, baker, dairyman, bell-ringer, gravedigger) and their wonderful old-fashioned names (Lily Boddice, Bert Parrish, Polly Graves). The nostalgia is tempered by an awareness of how repressed and small-minded village life could be and, as people drown in dykes or go missing at sea, how prone to calamity; in spirit and setting, On Chapel Sands is more like Graham Swift’s Waterland than Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Still, Cumming’s affection for Lincolnshire runs deep.
Cumming skilfully withholds key twists in the tale, revealing them at just the right moment. There are surprises, but no shocks. Her prose is too elegant for such gaudiness — composed and restrained, but empathetic. The daughter of two artists, Cumming intuitively refracts the natural world through art — on a crisp day, the Chapel beach is as crystal clear as a Seurat painting; on a windy day it whorls into a Turner. Nonetheless, more jokes and madcap characters would have livened up proceedings. From the microscopic details of her family history, Cumming wisely pans out to reflect on bigger ideas — the composition of personality, the origins of artistic impulse.
New evidence about the crime with which the story starts keeps emerging until the last page. By the end you know more than you could ever have guessed about all the actors in the drama. But On Chapel Sands is much more than a search for truth. It is a moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life. In short, a masterpiece.
This utterly enthralling family memoir draws you into a mystery from the childhood of the author's mother, who was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach in 1929. Five agonising days went by before she was found. Cumming sets out to unravel what happened and why, and the result is this spellbinding portrait of life in a seaside village before the war, and of its buttoned-up world of secrets and lies. Cumming-chief art critic for the Observer since 1999-has also woven in photographs and artworks, which beautifully illuminate and complement the narrative.