Laura Cumming’s picturesque world


Laura Cumming’s picturesque world

LOUIS GAIGHER looks at the empathetic prism through which the author observes the world.


ON a warm autumn day in 1929, a three-year-old disappears from a rockless, flat beach near her home in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England. It seems someone who was known to her took little Betty from the care of her mother, Veda, while they were having a picnic. Five days later, she is found in a village 12 miles away — unharmed and wearing a new red dress. The landscape where the events unfold, with its flatness, vast sky, clay soil, bare willow trees and quality of light, resembles the Netherlands, just across the North Sea.

On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons (2019) is Laura Cumming's loving tribute to her mother, Elizabeth (later known as Betty), and a journey through images. This poignant masterpiece begins and ends with evocative descriptions of the disappearance (or theft, according to the police report): an incident of which there are no living witnesses, except Elizabeth, who couldn't remember anything about it and now, due to dementia, no longer cares about the events that soured her early life.

The enduring mystery is perhaps not so much why Betty was abducted but why she was taken away from parental love and hidden with the silent complicity of the working-class community. Did an Edwardian social code of tact and discretion force villagers into silence? Were there other undercurrents? After more than 60 years, villagers still hesitate to shed light on events that shaped Elizabeth and later her two children, Laura and Timothy.

In childhood memoirs that Elizabeth gave Laura as a coming-of-age gift and that are extensively quoted in On Chapel Sands, Elizabeth emerges as an artist and a person. She is sensitive, eloquent, generous, attentive and receptive to beauty. But it's Cumming, an art critic at The Observer, who unravels the secrets and misconceptions of the past through her broad and empathetic perspective and her careful examination of tiny visual details, unlocking the layers and tragedies of bygone lives.

Cumming approaches her writing by examining the single family photo album: facial expressions, gestures and attire in photos smaller than matchboxes; gaps and empty pages; conflicting chronologies; seemingly erroneous inscriptions; and unmounted and duplicate photos from faraway Australia.

A photo of Veda, reminiscent of Vermeer's composition, leads to the realisation that the insufferable and authoritarian George, Elizabeth's travelling soap salesman father (a veteran of the South African War and World War 1), was a talented photographer whose artistic aspirations were probably hindered by his working-class background. Cumming sees in photos that Veda was much more than a timid housewife and that her marriage to George, seemingly devoid of beauty, also brought pleasure.

Through Cumming's gaze, the emotional undercurrents and inner lives of these reticent and sheltered Victorians, who sometimes indulged in extreme cruelty and perpetually suffered acute material lack, are heartrending.

One of the lessons Elizabeth teaches Laura is to preserve paintings in memory by first drawing the frame, then capturing the main forms and volumes in a quick miniature drawing. Cumming structures her writing similarly. She masterfully intertwines discursive observations with twists and revelations that constantly make you reconsider the relationship between characters. Right up to the last page.

On Chapel Sands is infused with objects, visual culture and artworks that give shape to characters' relationships and Lincolnshire of the 1920s and 30s: Ravilious's Wedgwood designs, Thiebaud's cakes, Vuillard's interiors and Turner's seascapes. Cumming grew up with reproductions of artworks on postcards and playing cards, and in books. A work such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus makes her receptive to the world and provides a prism through which she makes sense of events.

In the recently published Thunderclap: A memoir of art and life & sudden death, Cumming recalls her childhood in Edinburgh through artworks that made her receptive to the world. The book is an exploration of Dutch Golden Age art, a celebration of the sense of sight, as well as an elegiac tribute to her father, James Cumming, a Scottish semi-figurative painter. “All my ideas of life and art come originally from our conversations," she writes. Even after his sudden death, she still feels his presence: “Apparently dead for over thirty years but still thinking hard somewhere else."

The Cumming family's first and only overseas trip, to the Netherlands when Laura was seven and at the time of the moon landing, ignited a fascination with the Dutch landscape. It is familiar to her yet exotic, reminiscent of the perfection and beauty of polders, tiles, paving stones, bricks and the smoothness of the land surface — “its staggering flatness some kind of aspect of its own modernity".

The generous visual culture of the Golden Age speaks to her. In 20 years, in the mid-17th century, 700 Dutch artists painted 1.4-million (8-million, according to other estimates) works that people of all social classes and professions bought. The renowned paintings of interiors and still lifes were not just tricks of perspective or displays of wealth: depiction was often non-literal, subjects were embellished and imaginatively composed and merged. “What proliferation, what permeation, what love of images," Cumming exclaims. “Which other nation wanted to portray all of itself in this way, its food and drink and physical conditions, its lovers, its doctors, housewives, and drunks?"

Still lifes

Cumming writes luminously about the “transcendent charisma" of still lifes, and specifically about the “metallic sheen" that radiates from the subject of Adriaen Coorte's Still Life with Asparagus against a background of “obliterating darkness". She also examines works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Avercamp and Rachel Ruysch, among others.

Central to her, and perhaps most beloved, is Carel Fabritius, an enigmatic painter whose voice is silent in the written record, and of whom only a dozen works have survived. His most famous painting, The Goldfinch, is a portrait, executed in powerful brushstrokes, of a goldfinch with a chain on its claw, speaking of “isolation and inwardness". The bird's gaze is directed straight at the viewer.

Cataclysms and tragedies are not absent: Hilla, Cumming's daughter, suddenly becomes colour-blind; James Cumming loses the vision in one eye before his sudden death from cancer; Fabritius's wife and three daughters die before he is 21.

On a different scale: on 1654, a gunpowder storage facility explodes in Delft's city centre. The impact reduces a quarter of the city to ruins. Death toll: unknown. Among the victims are everyone who happened to be in Fabritius's studio that autumn morning: the painter himself, his assistant, his mother-in-law and a citizen posing for his portrait.

Recent restoration work on The Goldfinch has revealed scars that testify to a violent explosion. The Delft Thunderclap made every atom of the painting tremble, but it didn't destroy it because the paint was still wet. Someone rescued it from the ruins of Fabritius's studio, and we can still look at it. “The painting lives. The creator survives."

  ♦ VWB ♦

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