At first glance, Laura Cumming’s memoir On Chapel Sands begins with what appears to be a happy ending. On an autumn evening in 1929, a small child is snatched from a Lincolnshire beach. Her name is Betty Elston and she is three years old. The girl’s mother, Veda, is happy to let Betty play on Chapel Sands, not far from the family’s cottage, keeping an eye on her from a distance. Veda’s attention wanders; when she looks back the toddler has disappeared.
Panic sets in and the police are called; Betty has been kidnapped. A few days later, however, the little girl is found safe and well in a neighbouring village, wearing a different set of clothes. She has not been harmed but she has no memory of where she has been or who took her off the sands. She is restored to her mother and father (George, a travelling salesman) and life goes on.
This seemingly happy resolution is actually the starting point of a family mystery that will last for decades; On Chapel Sands represents Cumming’s attempt to solve it. Betty Elston will grow up to be Laura Cumming’s mother.
In fact, the book is the work of two investigators and two authors. ‘For my 21st birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life,’ notes Cumming. ‘This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.’ Elizabeth (Betty) set it all down for her daughter and extracts from the letter are dotted throughout the book. She was 56 when she wrote the following:
Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.
At this point, admirers of Cumming’s work may experience a frisson of déjà vu, for these are sentiments Cumming herself could have expressed, and in similar style. She is the chief art critic of the Observer and in her two previous books, A Face to the World and The Vanishing Man, she has brought painting to life with a mixture of sensitivity for the subject, deep erudition and a forensic eye for detail. The picture we are looking at, she suggests, will not tell us the whole story straight away. ‘The focus shifts, the relationships change, the meaning deepens every time.’ And so it is with On Chapel Sands. When Cumming’s mother sat down in the 1980s to write the memoir for her daughter, ‘she still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926… She and I used to make up stories to fill those empty years.’
Betty Elston is a bright child and wins a place at the local grammar school. On the bus one day, she is approached by a stranger, a woman with a summons: ‘Your grandmother wants to see you.’ Betty is both confused and upset by the encounter, not least because she has no grandmother. When she gets home she tells her parents what has happened and George peremptorily informs her that she is adopted. He does not reveal who Betty’s birth parents are, nor how she came to live with him and Veda. And he forbids her to talk to the stranger again or to ask any more questions. As far as he is concerned, the subject is closed forever.
In time, her cloistered existence in the village turns claustrophobic; father and daughter grow increasingly estranged; as soon as Betty can escape she does, to faraway Edinburgh and art college. In the absence of much background detail, she forges a new life. Cumming writes:
In the 92 years of my mother’s lifetime the nature-nurture debate has flourished, but it is as if she exists beyond the influence of either … Without any pattern, she turned herself into an ideal mother, a tender grandmother. She alone invented herself.
One of Cumming’s achievements in her previous books has been to elide the distinction between how we look at art and how we look at ourselves. Several times in On Chapel Sands she focuses on paintings that have meant something to her or her family, beginning with ‘the first image my mother ever owned… Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”,’ a colour plate which Betty detached from an art book and mounted on cardboard. The chapter devoted to this picture is the product of a lifetime’s study:
We looked at it by night and by day; by chance and on purpose; on the way to and from school, over meals, on our way upstairs to bed … it hung directly above the old table shoved against the damp wall in the kitchen where we could stare at it while eating Heinz tomato soup and Marmite on toast.
For Cumming, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ is ‘an object as well as an image’; she situates the painting both in her critical gaze and the real, or remembered, world. The effect is both illuminating and deeply touching.
But it is when Cumming turns her acute gaze on pictures from the family photo album that On Chapel Sands unites the strands of her work in earnest. Faded snapshots are sifted for clues as though they were both paintings and evidence. The book becomes a meditation on family, art and time. At one point she studies an unusual, carefully composed photograph of Veda posed by the kitchen window, peeling apples for a pie: ‘Veda looks slightly down and away, diffidently self-conscious… I have the recipe she used for this apple pie in her handwritten book with its slow copperplate.’ George has gone to great pains to create this image, she observes, comparing the picture to Vermeer:
But my grandfather had never seen a Vermeer; he had never even heard of this Dutch artist who languished in obscurity for centuries after his death… He yearned to be something other than what he was… Here, in this photograph, in this redemptive moment, George Elston is an artist.
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. ‘Go your own way. That was my father’s exhortation,’ she recalls. ‘He lived it, and so did my mother in her more reticent way, even from an early age … I see my young mother go forward, making herself up as she goes.’