Sun-Dappled Propaganda

Bee Wilson

  • On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming
    Chatto, 301 pp, £16.99, July, ISBN 978 1 78474 247 8

I’ve never mastered the art of smiling for a photo. Like many English people above a certain age, my parents had been brought up to believe that it was, if not quite bad manners, then certainly a little vulgar to smile open-mouthed, revealing any teeth. In a well-meaning way, they passed this rule on to me and my sister. As a result, my camera smile was an odd, forced thing. I worked very hard at it, turning up the corners of my mouth as far as I could over my hidden teeth and gums, but when I looked at the photos in our family albums, I felt I had only succeeded in looking weird. The photo smile I had been taught did not read as happiness to me. The smiles inside my head were the big-toothed beaming grins of 1980s adverts and American sitcoms. But I seldom dared experiment with such a flashy look in front of the camera.

In our age of selfies, no one could pretend that the camera never lies. It is capable of obfuscating and deceiving every bit as much as the people who compose, take and edit the photos. But that is not to say that the camera’s lies tell us nothing. The composition of a family snapshot can be deeply revealing. Who stages the shots and what will the backdrop be? Where do the family members stand? Who is included and who is not? Who gets to decide what happiness looks like?

In Laura Cumming’s previous book, The Vanishing Man, about the art of Velázquez and a Victorian bookseller who fell under its spell, she examined the idea of the figure at the margins of a picture, the person who goes unnoticed while the main action happens elsewhere. In On Chapel Sands, she turns her gaze to family photographs, and the secrets and lies they contain. The deep dramas of her mother’s childhood are used as a framework for examining what we can and can’t learn about a family by looking at the photographs it has left behind. Towards the end of the book, she discusses, and disagrees with, Susan Sontag’s claim in On Photography that images, unlike narration, cannot offer truths because they give a fragmented version of reality. For Cumming,

truth is apparent in the way people choose to present themselves to the lens, their recoil and shyness, their directness and élan; in the accidental image and the propaganda shot where people hold fast to staged poses; above all in the billions of self-portraits in which each photographer shows time and again how she or he wishes to be seen and known to the world.

From the age of three until the age of thirteen, Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – born in 1926 – was much photographed. Her father, George, a travelling salesman who sold industrial soap, was forever making her pose for shots which he would capture with his Box Brownie. There are black and white snaps of a three-year-old Betty on the beach at Chapel Sands, near the small Lincolnshire village of Chapel St Leonards where she was brought up, or posing with a new bicycle, or standing among spring tulips, or sitting in front of a tent, or cuddling a toy rabbit. Unlike my parents, George Elston seems to have had no objection to an open-mouthed smile. In the photographs reproduced in On Chapel Sands, Betty beams at the photographer with Shirley Temple glee, the kind of smile so ecstatic it seemingly can’t be feigned. One of the photographs shows her at the bottom of a vast hole in the sand which must have taken hours to dig. She has blonde bobbed hair, a dress with a round collar, a pale cardigan and a giant apple-cheeked smile. ‘My mother looks happy as a clam,’ Cumming writes.

Needless to say, Betty Elston was not as happy as she looked in the photos. In an account of her childhood written for her daughter, Betty referred to her father’s insistence on taking happy family snaps as ‘the photographer’s tyranny’. When George – a controlling man with a temper – got his camera out, he expected Betty and his wife, Veda, to pose as he demanded. ‘He would not yield his Box Brownie to anyone else,’ Cumming writes, adding that ‘my mother recalls his abrupt orders to turn to the light, pose this way or that, stand still, keep smiling, show her hands.’ He obsessively edited the photographs after they were taken and included only the very best images in the family album. Almost none of the photographs features George himself, because he is the one dictating what the lens will see. In the most remarkable image in the book, he posed Veda, then a newlywed, for a domestic shot at the kitchen window, peeling apples for a pie as the sunlight floods in, diffused through a muslin curtain. As his granddaughter writes, the photograph ‘looks like a Vermeer’: ‘carefully considered, exquisitely lit and composed’.

When she was ten, George made Betty pose in the family garden, for an image to be used as a Christmas card. The photograph shows a sunny-faced blonde girl sitting in the crook of a tree holding up an annual called Happy Days. She is wearing a white dress, white socks and white shoes. The image seems designed as a perfect tableau of happiness and childhood innocence. But, already, her smile is more strained than it was in the earlier photographs. Many years later, Betty recalled how much she detested posing for this photograph. ‘I remember hating it all, the artificial smile, the sitting quite still for an eternity, eyes watering in the sunlight, while my father got his picture. How amazed he would have been to have known my feelings running so contrary to the slogan.’ Three years later, when Betty became a teenager, George more or less stopped taking her photograph.

Perhaps all family photographs have an element of sun-dappled propaganda. Events are presented selectively, with rows and tears and moments of dullness and depression edited out. Family albums are disproportionately about celebration. If George Elston took the propaganda element of the family snapshot to greater lengths than most, that was probably because there was a giant secret about his family that he was trying to conceal, both from his daughter and from the outside world. The perfect daughter whom he photographed so obsessively at the age of three had only just been adopted by him and Veda and had only just been given the name Betty.

On Chapel Sands starts by seeming to be about one kind of mystery but soon starts being about another, much more profound one – or at least it becomes apparent that the first mystery is merely a symptom of the second (here come the plot spoilers). In some ways, the story is an unsubtle one, insofar as it has an unmistakable heroine and an equally clear-cut villain. The heroine is Betty – who is now in her nineties and on whom it is evident that Cumming dotes – and the villain is George, who died in 1952. But the subtlety and suspense of the narrative lies in the way Cumming allows details about their relationship to emerge slowly, like a photograph soaking in developing fluid.

The simple mystery with which the book opens is the kidnapping of three-year-old Betty from the beach near Chapel St Leonards on a warm autumn day in 1929 at 4.30 in the afternoon. Betty was sitting on the sand playing with a new tin spade in the company of Veda, who was sitting on a blanket knitting, when someone took her. Veda suddenly noticed that she was gone and that her little spade was lying on the sand. Veda telegrammed George – who was working in another part of the country – to return home. The police were informed and a frantic search went out, but for days, there was no sign or news of Betty. ‘Presumed stolen,’ the police report said.

It isn’t clear, as Cumming says, how anyone could have taken the child from this particular beach on this particular day without being observed. ‘A broad street of spotless sand, scattered with angel-wing shells, it seems to stretch for ever in both directions. There are no coves, dunes or rocks where an adult could hide a child; everything stands in open view.’ After five days, Betty was found, unharmed, 12 miles from where she had gone missing, wearing a different set of clothes. She had been dressed in blue, but when she was found by the police in the village of Alford, she was wearing a new red outfit.

The story of the kidnap and return of Betty Elston is strange enough, but stranger still is the fact that Betty herself heard nothing of it for another fifty years. George and Veda failed to mention it to her. As On Chapel Sands unfolds – and the pacing is artfully done – it becomes plain that Betty’s disappearance from the beach was less a kidnapping and more a reclaiming. She had been taken back by the family from whom she was adopted. Her real mother was an unmarried 24-year-old called Hilda Blanchard. The police found Betty in hiding with Hilda’s aunt Fanny. Hilda – who had been training to be an English teacher when she found out she was pregnant – had handed her daughter, whom she named Grace, over to the Elstons for a more respectable life. But Grace was desperately missed by the Blanchards and that day on the beach her grandmother – Hilda’s mother, Mary Jane – snatched her back.

For the first three years of her life, Grace grew up in a mill in the nearby village of Hogsthorpe, surrounded by a large extended family who were usually hard at work baking bread and cakes for the Blanchard bakery. After she became Betty, all she remembered of her earliest years was the smell of warm strawberry jam. Only in her sixties did she discover that the memory came from the fact that her family used to lift her up to let her help fill the jam tarts. In the Blanchards’ house, there was music and laughter and a hubbub of people. She exchanged this world for an elderly, formal household, where she was ordered by George to smile for the camera, where birthday cards were signed ‘best wishes’, where no one ever said ‘I love you’ and where Veda never played with her. Betty ‘remembers much beating of carpets and shovelling of ashes, the salting of mutton to keep it from rotting, the soaking of cucumber slices in dishes of vinegar to make them marginally more luxurious. Perhaps Veda was worn out by her chores, but I wonder if she was also unaccustomed to small children, shy, uncertain, possibly undermined by the kidnap.’

Much of the interest of On Chapel Sands is in the incidental details of rural Lincolnshire in the 1930s. As Cumming depicts it, the landscape was almost Dutch in its flatness and ‘ancient maze of dykes and paths’. At moments, the book becomes a social history, showing that a household such as the Elstons’ benefited from a salesman’s income, which placed them one notch above the Blanchards, both in terms of resources and status. Cumming makes it seem a narrow, pinched world. Chapel St Leonards is dominated by just a few families and there is much intermarriage. There is one hotel, the Vine, a ‘couthy establishment’ where George goes to drink and where Veda’s father was the innkeeper when she was growing up and where Betty is taken for a celebratory tea after she wins an essay prize. The main excitement is provided by the occasional consignment of strange things washing up on the beach, such as a crate of grapefruits, ‘odd yellow globes never seen before by anyone except Mr Stow, proprietor of Stow’s Stores by the Pulley’. By the standards of Chapel St Leonards, the quiet seaside town of Skegness seems like a distant and racy metropolis. ‘At the age of ten,’ Cumming writes, ‘my mother won a scholarship to Skegness Grammar and the radius of her life suddenly became seven miles wider.’

On Chapel Sands gives a sense of how trapped people in interwar English villages could be by their surroundings. When Betty goes missing, Veda has to send a telegram for help because ‘they do not have a telephone, and neither do any of their neighbours.’ Until the age of five, Betty shared her parents’ bedroom and Veda washed their clothes using a mangle. There were few books in the house except the Bible and a single romantic novel published in 1921. When she is a little older, George decides that Betty should learn to play the piano, but they can’t afford one, so he draws a keyboard for her on paper, colouring the black keys with grey graphite pencil. He made her a cardboard chess set the same way. When she was small, he also made her models to play with, including a miniature replica of the family home in St Leonard’s Villas ‘complete with one-inch balconies and cutlery soldered out of hairpins’.

To make a child a toy model of her own house to play with could be seen as thoughtful or it could be seen as a way of telling her that her horizons should be limited to the four walls she was growing up in – a ‘jailer’s instincts’, Cumming writes. George was clever and resourceful, but he also displayed a harsh conformism and a desire to keep his household in order. ‘Keep yourself to yourself’ was his mantra. People in the village said that he was a difficult man and Veda was a saint. The Elstons had almost no visitors, except for an elderly couple who came on Christmas Day, the man with a white walrus moustache and a pocket barometer. Betty was not allowed to play with the village children and the only two places she ever went were to church with Veda, where they polished the brass, or to the beach with George (after the kidnap, Veda did not take her there). She felt frightened of her father most of the time. There were strict rules at mealtimes and Cumming writes that everything about eating ‘seemed rude’ to the Elstons. ‘Don’t be slow/leave food/scrape the plate/talk with your mouth full/say you don’t want it/say you want more of it/slump over the table/make eating noises.’

When she was four, something happened at the dinner table for which Betty said she never forgave her father. The Elstons shared their house with Veda’s decrepit mother, Granny Crawford, who was very deaf and frail, and dressed in ‘floor-length black frocks’. One day, she earned George’s wrath for supposedly holding her knife and fork the wrong way. ‘I had never before witnessed such ill-temper, so unjust; and I can feel now the moment of stunned terror between grandmother, mother and I, as this abuse shook the very plates it seemed; and little grandmother sat stock still, looking down with folded hands.’ From then onwards, Betty began to turn ‘resentfully silent’, but the irony was that silence was exactly what George wanted from his daughter.

After she started at Skegness Grammar, Betty became still more distanced from her father. At school, she discovered that ‘other people’s family lives could be quite different from her own.’ She went to the cinema and saw Deanna Durbin films and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Her parents didn’t allow her to hang around in Skegness after school, ‘or eat sundaes at Molly’s café’, yet her perspective was opening up beyond the life her father had manufactured for her. When she took the bus home she would sketch the landscape as she travelled ‘through the flatlands of brassica fields and shining dykes, past roadside cherry stalls and the gradual blossoming of Ingoldmells from hamlet to early caravan village’.

It was on the school bus, at the age of 13, that Betty discovered her parents were not who she thought. One day, an elderly woman dressed in black whom she had seen many times before, approached her and told her that ‘your grandmother wants to see you.’ She showed Betty a photograph of herself as a small child. Distraught, Betty ran home to tell her mother, but Veda continued to stir her pot at the stove. She suggested that Betty might want to go and ride her bicycle. When she came back, George and Veda took her into the parlour. George told her that they ‘took her in’ as a small child and were her adopted parents. They did not tell her who her true parents were. They told Betty she must not speak to the woman on the bus ever again. ‘Betty began to dislike George intensely.’ After she left home – for art school and then to Edinburgh, where she met Cumming’s father – she changed her name from Betty to Elizabeth, a rejection of the identity she had been given.

But this adoption story was still not quite the truth about the Elston family. Betty uncovered the real story of her childhood by looking at a photograph. As a teenager, she needed to have an official photograph taken. When it was developed, Cumming writes, ‘my mother looked at herself and saw George.’ She realised that George was actually her real father. After that she resolved to be ‘as unlike him as possible’, even though the camera mercilessly showed that they had the same features. For Cumming, this moment provides proof of the power of images to deepen our understanding in unexpected ways. George never told Betty he was her father, and she never confronted him on the subject. It was many decades before she got official written proof that he was her birth father. But her eyes – or rather the camera’s eye – had already proved the truth of her parentage to her.

What Veda thought about all this is one of the many unresolved mysteries in On Chapel Sands. Cumming speculates that ‘perhaps she loved George enough to forgive him, or thought it her Christian duty or, like so many other husbands and wives, simply had no choice.’ Betty and Veda seem to have loved each other, and Betty remembers her adoptive mother as kind and stoical, a maker of puddings and cheesecakes who came into her own during the war when she knitted socks for the troops. She knitted Betty an oatmeal and orange cardigan which she wore for thirty years. After Veda died, Betty arranged for thousands of daffodils to be planted in the grounds of the local primary school for the children to pick on Mothers’ Day. Cumming observes that Veda seems to have been the opposite of the evil stepmother of fairy tales: she was ‘entirely accepting’ of her adopted daughter.

A still greater mystery is the nature of the relationship between Hilda and George. Cumming wasn’t able to find out many details of the affair, although a startling and incongruous family snapshot on the book’s final page suggests that strong passion was involved, at least on George’s side. Betty imagines it as ‘a Hardyesque seduction’. When they met, Hilda can’t have been older than twenty whereas George was in his forties. But no one knows or remembers whether their encounter took place, ‘at the Vine, a village dance, on Chapel Sands?’ In her sixties Betty makes contact with her great-aunt Fanny, who tells her that when Hilda told her family she was having a baby, her father said she should have an abortion but Hilda insisted that the baby would live and that her parents must ‘rear it’ at the mill.

The story of how a baby wanted so much by her mother ended up living with her adulterous father under a new name has as much to say about the hypocrisies of the British class system in the 1930s as it does about the personality of George Elston. A married man who had fathered a child out of wedlock seemed to offer a more respectable home for a child than her own mother, if she was a baker’s daughter. In her first three years, Grace seems to have spent time with both her natural parents, but mostly lived with her mother and the Blanchards in Hogsthorpe. But Hilda’s parents were pillars of the local church who, according to a friend, ‘could not stand the shame’ of having an illegitimate child living with them, much as they loved her. Allowing the Elstons to bring up Grace in bourgeois comfort seemed a way to save the family honour and give the child a better chance in life. The kidnapping was a sign of how quickly Grace’s grandmother regretted this choice and tried to reverse it, but the consequence of her stealing the child back was to make George still more adamant about gaining official possession of his daughter.

Three weeks after the kidnap, he made Hilda sign a contract witnessed and arranged by a solicitor relinquishing all rights as a parent. Although George and Veda claimed to have adopted Betty, the contract was not technically an adoption under English law, but a more idiosyncratic arrangement the gist of which was that the Elstons had all the power and Hilda had none. Under the terms of the contract, the adopters were to have ‘controlled custody’ of the child until she was 21. The child should be ‘held out to the world and in all respects treated as if she were in fact the child of the adopters’. In return, they would finance ‘her maintenance and education’. Meanwhile the parent – Hilda – must agree not to hold ‘any further communication with the child’. If she were found to be in breach of this, she must repay the adopters the full amount they had spent on supporting and educating the child. As Cumming notes, this would have amounted to a huge threat to Hilda as a young woman with no financial resources. The document banned the Blanchard family from coming anywhere near the child or from letting her know that she belonged to them.

Now the child was definitively prised away from Hilda’s family, George could photograph her as much as he wanted. He posed her with toys and flowers, on the beach and in the garden, ordering her to smile until he was satisfied. In the light of what had happened, the broadness of the child’s smile seems awful. Not only was she forced by George never to see her mother and grandparents and uncles and aunts again but she was required to look blissfully happy about it. As an adult, Betty would suffer from panic attacks in confined spaces and crippling social anxiety. When George died, she chose not to attend his funeral. As Cumming writes, the same photograph can reveal different meanings depending on what we bring to it. ‘Images hold the world before us, unwavering, unchanging, fixed before our eyes. But we may look again, and again, seeing and understanding more.’

Not long after she signed this contract, Hilda left Hogsthorpe for Australia. In the outback, she met a man called Lance Lakey who became her husband. They had two daughters, Judy and Susan, and Hilda became a teacher. She led an apparently quiet, peaceful life and died in 1974, aged 69. In the 1980s, Judy and Susan travelled to the UK to make contact with Betty. They told her stories of the mother she could not remember. They spoke of her deep blue eyes and soft voice, and the courage it took to leave England for Australia. They shared photographs of Hilda wearing an elegant jacket and looking very like the adult Betty. They told Betty that on the table by their mother’s bed when they were growing up there was always a black and white photograph of a little blonde girl standing in a garden, smiling in the midst of some tulips. When Susan asked her mother who the person in the picture was, she said it was just a little girl she once knew.

Some mysteries are impossible to clear up. The more that is known about the kidnapping on Chapel Sands, the more puzzling and complex the motivations become. Betty’s parentage must have been an open secret in the village in 1929. Why did the police write ‘presumed stolen’ in their report when everyone must have presumed the child was back with her true family? Many people in both Chapel and Hogsthorpe must have known at least some of what was going on in the life of this small child, but said nothing. Cumming suggests that, given how common it was for children to be born out of wedlock, this kind of secrecy was normal. ‘Whole villages, and later council estates, would keep a family’s secrets on the grounds that it was nobody’s business.’ Grace was christened in the church at Hogsthorpe, where she appears in the register as ‘Grace Ellston Blanchard’. Another person who was in on the secret was Dr Paterson, who delivered her. Mr Stow of Stow’s Stores definitely knew, and so did the village butcher. But except for the woman on the bus that day – who was a friend of Hilda’s mother – no one spoke up to puncture the lies on which George Elston’s respectable household was founded. The Blanchards used to watch the child at village events to see how she was getting on, but never made themselves known to her. The person who may have seen Betty most often was Harold Blanchard – one of Hilda’s brothers – whose job it was to deliver bread door to door in Chapel, arriving in a cream-coloured baker’s van. Betty always wondered why Mr Blanchard called with loaves at all the houses in their street, except theirs.