An art critic’s memoir

This week I read Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands. It has SUCH an amazing premise: it’s a memoir by an art critic whose mother went missing for three days from a Lincolnshire beach. It happened in 1929 when her mum, Betty, was three – Betty has no memories of this event, and wasn’t even told about it until she was in her fifties. What happened?

As she unravels the mystery, Cumming drops jewels of art criticism, like her description of Sussex artist Eric Ravilious’s work, in which she detects “a kind of surprise that the plain, scrubbed world could be quite so beautiful”.

And she creates an entirely new kind of memoir, using her professional skills to interpret family photos – a shot of her grandmother when young is like a Vermeer, light streaming in through the kitchen window onto the serenely beautiful woman peeling apples into an enamel pie dish. She describes the beach of Chapel Sands as like a Seurat in some moods; a Turner in others – “What is the sea”, she asks, “but a perfect abstraction?” Of the print of Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus that decorated her childhood home, she writes: “No other painting has ever made me feel so keenly alive to the idea that this high round world, lit by the sun, is the very same place where our ancestors once trudged and ploughed and fished the very same seas, in their queer medieval costumes; that we may change but the scenery does not.”

“Life reproves the imagination: look closer,” Cumming writes. And she does, investing her family history – a picture made up of photos and memories and scanty written documents – with more and more possibility, more and more complexity, each time she reexamines it. And she concludes that sometimes the past can only ever be unknowable.

I was enthralled by the depiction of the village of Chapel St Leonards in the 1920s as beset by a kind of pinched conservatism that is airless and depressing. (Funny to think that at the same time, the Bloomsbury-ites were whooping it up with threesomes and all sorts of high jinks at Charleston.) Betty’s adoptive parents – repressed, silent types – never spoke of her true origins, and nor did the tightlipped villagers.

And though she overflows with empathy for the pain her rigid grandparents caused her much-loved mother (she describes her as being “as celebratory as summer”), Cumming finds it in herself to humanise these people who did little Betty so much damage. “What seemed right at the time now seems cruel and inhuman,” explains one villager of the morals – a profound, pervasive shame about sexuality chief among them – that saw an entire community keep the secret of a child’s identity from her.

And eventually the mystery is solved – surprisingly but inevitably. This is just an extraordinary piece of writing on family and love and art and history. I loved it.

In related news, did I immediately rush to spend 10 of your English pounds on a Hay Festival listening subscription SOLELY to hear Cumming interviewed by the co-host of another fave podcast, John Mitchinson of Backlisted? You bet I did.

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