In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

November 2019

 - Friday, October 25, 2019
Laura Cumming is an art historian of the accessible kind—not dense, academic theory—her way of looking at, and her way of explaining a picture, resonate through her latest book, On Chapel Sands. This is a mystery, a memoir and a most loving tribute to her mother—the central figure in this poetic, haunting book. When her mother was aged three (and known as Betty at that time), she disappeared while playing on the Lincolnshire beach (Chapel Sands in Lincolnshire), and was missing for five days. She is eventually returned to her parents, and this mystery lies dormant for decades, until her daughter, Laura, decides to find out what happened. Her mother, now known as Elizabeth, had written the memoir of her life and given it to Cumming as a twenty first birthday; and this forms the background of On Chapel Sands
When Cumming investigates her mother’s strange disappearance, and in fact her true provenance, she uncovers a most extraordinary conspiracy of silence amongst everyone who knew of the five day kidnapping—a whole village in fact, some of whom are very old, but still determined to keep the secret. There are also small black and white photos peppered through the book, at which Cumming looks closely¬≠—revealing small clues that come light on this close inspection. This is very illuminating, and I couldn’t help but think of the ‘sentimental regard’ that Susan Sontag writes about in her 1977 book, On Photography. Also fascinating are Cumming’s discussions of certain artworks, particularly Breughel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. This painting, of Icarus falling and drowning in plain sight, is the first picture that Betty, as an art student, ever bought for herself, a worthy leitmotif running through the narrative.

While Cumming’s tale is certainly an odd one, it’s perhaps not so unusual for the time in which it’s set. And it is so thoughtfully written that it has an impact far and beyond the facts of the disappearance. It is sad, and it’s affecting, but it is not sentimental, and it stands as a testament to both the author and her subject, her mother. A wonderful book.

Seasons greetings to everybody, hope you all have a large stack of books to read over the festive season        Louise