“On Chapel Sands” by Laura Cumming: How everything turns away quite leisurely from disaster”

In 1929, on the long golden Lincolnshire beach of Chapel Sands, three-year-old Betty Elston was abducted when her mother wasn’t looking, but found safe and well in a house nearby a few days later. Why did Betty so readily accept being kidnapped and why were no demands for money involved? Perhaps understandably, her parents did not reveal that she had been adopted until an incident ten years later but why was she kept so isolated from local people? Why did the kind-hearted Betty come to reject her adoptive father to the extent of not going to his funeral? And why did the baker’s boy deliver bread to the neighbouring households, but not hers?

Although this reads at times like fiction, it is art critic Laura Cumming’s biographical “homage” to her mother in which “all the characters and events are real” with “only one name… changed, in the final chapter”. Skilled in interpreting what lies behind a painting, the author deftly drip-feeds the intriguing details of her mother’s life, some not discovered until years after the event.

Betty’s adoptive mother Veda seems sweet and submissive, perhaps worn down by two decades of infertility in a community where being a wife and mother was the main point of one’s existence, not to mention dealing with George, allegedly an “extremely intelligent but domineering and somewhat like a character from Dickens.”. Adoptive father George seemed cast as villain of the piece but I felt that the author was rather too hard on him, only softening in the revelation saved for the final chapter. In the kind of life where much of the excitement comes early on, in his case with a valiant role in the Boer War, ending up as a travelling salesmen during the years of Depression and World War Two must have been an anti-climax. Yet his skill in making elaborate models and using a simple Box Brownie character to produce some evocative photos suggests he may have been a frustrated artist, whereas Betty and Laura, born later, had the chance to develop their artistic talents.

Perhaps a little too thin at times, leading to repetition and reliance on speculation, the facts are fleshed out with descriptions of local celebrities like Tennyson who wrote of Chapel Sands as “a sand-built ridge….the spine-bone of the world”, together with vivid accounts of social life in rural Lincolnshire in the last century. Here were tightknit, inward-looking local communities where everyone knew each other’s business, but no one said a word to Betty about her origins. We are reminded of a lost world of self-sufficiency: in the 1920s the village of Hogsthorpe “numbered not quite five hundred people” with “a surprising range of shops – a butcher, a baker, not one but two shoemakers, a pair of blacksmiths….– a confectioner, three separate grocers, a bricklayer, plumber and wheelwright.… you could have your hair cut, have bicycles and baskets custom-made…the elementary school had room for more than a hundred pupils” – all this long gone.

Linking her mother’s life to the pictures she collected, Laura Cumming provides a detailed analysis of Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”: the sturdy farmer ploughing improbably close to the cliff edge seems oblivious to Icarus drowning in the sea, just as the locals ignored the Elston family drama, while George is likened to Icarus in his hubris. It is a pity my Kindle could do justice neither to George’s photographs nor the paintings cited , so I advise reading a paper copy of the book if possible.

This book follows the same forensic technique as Laura Cumming’s “The Vanishing Man”, interpreting and speculating on the works of the great painter Velasquez. I was more impressed by the latter, but it may be a matter of taste whether one prefers the smaller-scale, more domestic canvas of the life of an ordinary girl who escaped a narrow world to find fulfilment as a painter and weaver, against the odds.