Book review: On Chapel Sands: My Mother And Other Missing Persons, by Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming
Laura Cumming
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In the first few pages of On Chapel Sands, Laura Cumming describes the kidnapping of a child from a beach in 1929. That child, Betty, was Cumming’s mother, and she was missing for five days before being found safe.

The beach is Chapel St Leonards in Lincolnshire, described by the poet Tennyson, a local, as “the spine-bone of the world”, and its expanses loom large in solving this fascinating mystery.

As an adult, Betty calls herself Elizabeth, distances herself from her background and for decades knows nothing of the kidnapping. Her parents, Veda and George, products of Victorian childhoods, never mention it. The sketchy details only emerge 50 years later, but it is finding the answer to who was responsible and what happened in those missing days which drives the book.

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.

Betty’s childhood is insular; friends are cut off without explanation by her parents and neighbours shunned. Even the baker’s boy, watched on the street every day by the young Betty, avoids their house. Her clever and artistic character is repressed and her potential cut short by an overbearing father.

But throughout this childhood are photographs, taken meticulously by George on his Box Brownie, portraying idyllic days, many spent on the beach. In them, Betty is in her finest clothes for the camera with a bucket and spade.

It seems remarkable that the location of the traumatic kidnapping goes on to feature so hugely in the family records. But the investigation by Cumming and her elderly mother throw up more intriguing oddities. Betty wasn’t reported missing until the day after she was taken. Police records of the subsequent search reveal no witnesses among the neighbours. No charges are brought, although Betty was found at an address 12 miles away.

Cumming is an art critic and the text is peppered with paintings which teach us how to interpret images. In Brueghel’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus, a ploughman carries on tilling the fields while a shepherd glances towards the sky, idly curious on hearing some unfamiliar sound. In the sea to the extreme right is a tiny detail, a splash and legs disappearing beneath the waves alerts us to Icarus’s demise. So it would seem on the day of the kidnapping: a momentous event went almost unremarked but the repercussions ripple down through the generations.

A chance encounter on a bus in Betty’s teenage years adds another dimension to her history and destroys her relationship with her father. He takes no further photos. But it is a snapshot of Betty as a very young child, found tucked away at the back of an album and captioned with a different name, which holds the key to solving the mystery.

Eventually people talk, unheard-of relatives come forward to piece together the story and facts are revealed in a tale that spans the globe.

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. - Kirsty McLuckie

On Chapel Sands: My Mother And Other Missing Persons, by Laura Cumming, Penguin Random House, £18.99. Laura Cumming is appearing at the Edinburgh International book Festival on 11 August at 10.15am