On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters.

On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, but her attention wandered, she looked away, and when she looked back the child had vanished.

Her father, George, a travelling salesman, was called home; the police were summoned; but a few days later, the little girl was found safe and well in a nearby village, completely unharmed but dressed in a brand new set of clothes. She was restored to her parents, her memory of what had happened would fade away, and her life would go on.

It was a strange, and often unhappy, life for young Betty. Her parents kept her close, barely letting her mix with other children, and they held themselves apart from their neighbours, only keeping in touch with a few old friends.

You might think that they were being over- protective after what had happened; but if that was the case why did there daughter feel no warmth from them, and why did she hear no words of love and care, not even one single word of reassurance after a strange encounter led her her father to tell her that she had been adopted?

Betty eventually escapes from the confines of her life, to art college in the distant city of Edinburgh; where she will build a new life, as an artist, as a wife, and as mother.

Laura Cumming is Betty Elson’s daughter, and as she grew up she came to realise that her mother never spoke about her own childhood. When Elizabeth (who modified her name, as she had always hated being called Betty) asked what she would most like for her 21st birthday, Laura answered the tale of her mother’s early life.

The mother wrote:

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.

And the daughter noted:

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.

That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did.

I was captivated by her voice, which was intelligent, warm and compassionate.

I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator.

The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time.

The arc of the story is relatively simple, but this is not a book to read just to learn the story, it is a book to read to appreciate all of the things that are threaded through that story.

There is very real social history; there is a willingness to learn and to understand; and there is exactly the right amount of restraint – lives and families and communities are illuminated but there is no intrusion and no assumption about things that could not be known.

There is a wonderful appreciation of the depth and complexity of family love; and it the loveliest of tributes from a daughter to a mother.

I’m trying not to say too much, because I was told more that I wanted to know about this book before I started to read.

And so I will simply finish by saying that this book is beautiful, moving and profound.