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On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, review: kidnapping, lies and a 90-year-old family mystery

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The author's mother Betty Elston as a child
The author's mother Betty Elston as a child

In Stephen Poliakoff’s 1999 television drama Shooting the Past, a prestigious British photographic library is threatened by American property developers. Its staff seek to convince the new owners not to break up the incomparable collection it houses by using its rare photographs, in a sequence of improvised yet powerfully orchestrated displays, to tell the extraordinary stories of apparently ordinary lives. 

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. 

“The lives of our parents before we were born is surely our first great mystery,” writes Cumming. Her mother, Betty Elston, was the only child of much older parents, George and Veda, living in the village of Chapel St Leonards on the Lincolnshire coast. Cumming uses this local landscape with relish. An acclaimed art writer, she describes an isolated, almost other-worldly place:  “The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.”

It is on one such tranquil day that Betty, playing on the sands, disappears; her mother’s attention wanders for a second, and the next minute the child has vanished.  An urgent telegram is dispatched to Betty’s father, a travelling salesman working away from home. Neighbours join in the search. After five unendurable days, Betty is found “in a house not 12 miles from the shore”, unharmed, her blue clothing exchanged for red “as through some curious Doppler shift”. 

When Cumming turns 21 in the early Eighties, her mother, as a birthday gift, writes her a memoir of her own early life. Betty has no recollection of the kidnap, or indeed of any of the complicated events of her earliest years. For when Betty first sets eyes on her own birth certificate in 1966 at the age of 40, Veda having recently died (George had passed away in 1952), she discovers that she was born and baptised “Grace”, and that she is, according to the certificate, fatherless. 

Betty Elston as a young girl

Betty had already known that she was adopted. The “truth” had been revealed at a moment of crisis – on the eve of the Second World War, 10 years after the abduction on Chapel Sands. Betty, always a lonely child – inexplicably not allowed to play outdoors or even with other children, always kept within the confines of her parents’ tiny cottage – had at last been allowed to go away to school. A clever girl, she had won a scholarship to Skegness Grammar, a bus ride up the coast. Aged 13, travelling home at the end of the school day, she is approached by a stranger, a middle-aged woman, who states that “your grandmother wants to see you”. Betty is confused, and terrified: her grandmother, Veda’s mother, who had lived with them, died when she was five.

At home, she tentatively makes inquiries of her parents. What happens next is a mini-explosion of half-truths and clumsy obfuscation surrounding her origins, which, as time moves forward, Betty realises must have been known to the entire close-knit neighbourhood from the start. George brusquely informs her that she is adopted, and that she must never speak of the encounter with this stranger again. A shutter goes down.  No longer is Betty the joyous subject of George’s beloved Box Brownie photographs, which will be pored over by her daughter years later, hunting for clues, as Cumming describes it: “one decade in the light, then many black pages”.

The schism between Betty and the energetic, domineering George is complete: Veda remains passive.  Eventually Betty will become Elizabeth, escape to Edinburgh and art college, marriage and her own family, which will finally help her feel that she belongs somewhere and to someone. Her later attempts to find out more about her birth story will be met with a wall of silence from the villagers among whom she grew up. Cumming’s mother is now in her 90s: “she stopped searching long ago,” writes her daughter, “but now I must discover the truth of the story”. 

Betty's parents George and Veda in 1913, with Veda's sister Hilda

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). 

But it is Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c1555) that holds generational and interpretive sway, and which, like Cumming’s story, rewards close attention. This painting, depicting a busy scene of prosaic rural Renaissance life extraordinarily interrupted by a boy plunging from the sky to his death (having, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, flown too close to the sun), was important to Cumming’s mother as an art student; she cut the plate from a book and hung it on her wall. Today the same reproduction adorns Cumming’s own home. 

Bruegel’s focus is the life bustling on: the flailing legs of the drowning boy appear at the extreme right-hand corner of the canvas, a random disaster, barely noticed, while the indifferent world goes by. Betty Elston’s unplanned arrival in the world affected those in her immediate vicinity in a similar way: in this case, a community reacted with a curious mix of shame and detachment. The repercussions are interrogated by Cumming with a hungry precision up to her last, revelatory pages. 

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto & Windus at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop