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  • Published: 2 April 2020
  • ISBN: 9781784708634
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $22.99

On Chapel Sands

My mother and other missing persons

The Sunday Times bestseller - Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, uncovers the mystery of her mother's disappearance as a child


'A modern masterpiece' Guardian

Uncovering the mystery of her mother's disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.

Autumn 1929 - a young girl is kidnapped from a beach. Five agonising days go by before she is discovered safe and well in a nearby village. The child remembers nothing of these events and at home, nobody ever speaks of them again.

Decades later, Laura Cumming delves into the mystery surrounding her mother's disappearance. Examining everything from old family photos to letters, tickets and recipes, she uncovers a series of secrets and lies perpetuated not just by her family but by the whole community and in doing so unlocks a mystery almost a century old.

'A moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life' Sunday Times
Shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction
Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize
Longlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize


  • Published: 2 April 2020
  • ISBN: 9781784708634
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $22.99

About the author

Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been chief art critic of the Observer since 1999. Her book, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez, was Book of the Week on Radio 4, Wall Street Journal Book of the Year and a New York Times bestseller. It won the 2017 James Tait Black Biography Prize and was published to critical acclaim (‘A riveting detective story: readers will be spellbound’ Colm Tóibín). Her first book, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, was described by Nick Hornby as ‘Brilliant, fizzing with ideas not just about art but human nature’ and by Julian Barnes as ‘that rare item: an art book where the text is so enthralling that the pictures almost seem like an interruption’.

Also by Laura Cumming

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Praise for On Chapel Sands

*Memoir of the Year* How we see -- and who see and what secrets they choose to share -- is at the heart of this exquisitely composed memoir... A peerless detective story that keeps you guessing to the end

Helen Davies, The Sunday Times

On Chapel Sands is much more than a search for truth. It is a moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life. In short, a masterpiece

John Carey, Sunday Times

Cumming skilfully withholds key twists in the tale, revealing them at just the right moment. There are surprises, but no shocks. Her prose is too elegant for such gaudiness – composed and restrained but empathetic

Leaf Arbuthnot, The Times

Brilliant... This book is a love letter to her [Cumming's] mother, whose warmth, articulacy and survival instincts shine though. It's also an intimate portrait of a village community, with its storybook characters (butcher, baker, dairyman, bell-ringer, gravedigger) and their wonderful old-fashioned names

Blake Morrison, Guardian

By turns beautiful, wistful, and ominous… the reasons behind the kidnap, and the repurcussions, are every bit as complex as any served up by fiction, and, oddly enough, the dénouement -- or succession of dénouements -- is just as satisfying, perhaps more so... a meditation on the way some people disappear, and time erases memory... so familiar as to be universal, and will probably ring bells with all but the sunniest reader (***** Five Stars)

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

A deeply felt, forensic yet ultimately empathetic examination of human motivation and its attendant sorrows, which is as much a social history of the early 20th century as it is the story of one family and its secrets… [Cumming's] intermeshing of art, time and memory is superlative… The repercussions are interrogated by Cumming with a hungry precision up to her last, revelatory pages

Catherine Taylor, Daily Telegraph

On Chapel Sands is a mystery solved through empathy and interpretation. It feels as if this is the book Cumming has been working towards, a deeply personal story but one that also draws on practised skills as a critic and a writer. It is perfectly balanced between the requirements of its narrative and the expression of its author's passions. It is a moving tribute from a daughter to her parents and grandparents. It is beautifully written

Andy Miller, Spectator

Unputdownable… this memoir-cum-detective story becomes a remarkable search for truth

Charlotte Cox, Sunday Telegraph

A fascinating, beautifully written feat of detective work, evoking bygone Britain during an era when so much was left unsaid

Charlotte Heathcote, Daily Mail, *Book of the Week*

A poetic blend of memoir and detective story… Cumming breathes new life into the form, with her art critic’s analysis of the family photographs which appear on many of the pages

Marcus Field, Evening Standard

On Chapel Sands is a fascinating read, as painstaking as an archaeological dig. Laura carefully sifts through years of fact, speculation and omission until the truth comes to light

Eithne Farry, Sunday Express

Wonderful, haunting... a poetic study in half-lights and fragments... a moving meditation... It is intimate and yet, at a slant, draws in a larger web of moments beyond the limits of the frame

Lucy Lethbridge, Literary Review

This is a clear-eyed and careful portrait of a family unravelling that stands out for the way in which it considers what isn’t being shown as much as what is

Sarah Hughes

Gripped from the sure-footed imagery of the opening sentence… the fragmentary style of the book gives way to a more lyrical tone… The lyricism of her relationship with images…is this book’s greatest gift

Raffaella Barker, Oldie

This utterly enthralling family memoir draws you into a mystery from the childhood of the author's mother... spellbinding... [Cumming] has also woven in photographs and artworks, which beautifully illuminate and complement the narrative

Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

A modern masterpiece

Guardian, *Summer Read of 2019*

An outstanding investigation into a family’s secrets and a revelation of how art enriches life

Sunday Times, *Summer Reads of 2019*

There can be no more gripping read than Observer art critic Laura Cumming's On Chapel Sands... Nothing is as it seems right up to the last page of this modern masterpiece

James Le Fanu, Tablet, *Summer reads of 2019*

Its pleasures are slow, cumulative and utterly absorbing, it would be the perfect choice for a holiday with long stretches of reading time… A wonderful meditation on the half-truths and half-lights that make up our understanding of a life

Lucy Lethbridge, Tablet, *Summer reads of 2019*

An absolute masterpiece. A book bursting with love – love lost and love found, love misunderstood, unsaid and denied. I was spellbound by Laura Cumming’s warm, intelligent, searching voice and her intense scrutiny of images to reveal the unexpected and make us think again. I am in complete awe. A beguilingly lovely book – as big as the sea

Keggie Carew, author of Dadland

An absolutely utterly transfixing narrative which I could hardly bear to leave in order to go to sleep at night and which I could not wait to wake up to in the morning, writing of such sublime beauty that I delighted in page after page, and above all a story of such emotional power, not only about Laura’s mother, but also about Laura herself, that sometimes I found myself putting my copy down just to take a moment to breathe

Juliet Nicolson, author of A House Full of Daughters

An intricately structured and perfectly written swirl of memoir, history and art: the prose equivalent of beautifully marbled paper. I adored it

Adèle Geras

A true masterpiece: an unveiling of family secrets written in prose of the utmost beauty, and an astonishing act of filial love. Read it!

Jonathan Coe

Exquisitely written, compelling and painful

Amanda Craig

[An] intriguing and beautiful book… Cumming summons a novelist’s skill, making it impossible to stop reading the unravelling story. Every chapter ends with a new discovery, or the potential for one, and right up to the very last page the serpentine revelations twist like an anaconda

Sue Gaisford, Tablet

Haunting, luminous and revelatory… one of the best memoirs in recent years

Sarah Hughes, i, *Best books of 2019*

[A] compelling, beautifully written book… Chapter by chapter, Cumming slowly pieces together an authentic portrait of her ancestors, a paean dedicated lovingly to her mother

Jackie Annesley, Daily Mail

Extraordinary… It is a scrupulously, luminously empathic book, and the work of a masterful storyteller

Stephanie Cross, The Lady

A remarkable new book, which blends mystery, memoir, art criticism and Lincolnshire history… The story may be unique but the themes are universal

Yusef Sayed, Lincolnshire Life

A profound and beautiful book… Cumming illuminate the darkness of secrets, shame and betrayal and their effects in a riveting book

Kirsty McLuckie, Scotland on Sunday

[An] excellent mystery memoir


The story, beautifully written, is enriched by Cumming’s skill at making pictures speak

Mark Mazower, Financial Times

On Chapel Sands is as compelling as any detective novel of the golden age. The rigour and pace of the writing, its themes of mistaken identity, confinement and sexual deceit are reminiscent of Josephine Tey

Nancy Campbell, Times Literary Supplement

Laura Cumming writes very beautifully and I take real pleasure in the prose

Jacqueline Wilson, Time & Leisure

On Chapel Sands is beautifully written, immersive and moving – and it’s one of the finest books of the year

Will Gore, Spectator

A haunting investigation into family trauma and secrets from a forgotten England that turns out to lie closer to the surface than anyone suspected. Turning detective, she [Laura Cumming] interrogates old snapshots with the forensic skill of a professional art critic

Mark Mazower, New Statesman, *Books of the Year*

On Chapel Sands starts by seeming to be about one kind of mystery but soon starts being about another, much more profound one… the subtlety and suspense of the narrative lies in the way Cumming allows details about their relationship to emerge slowly, like a photograph socking in developing fluid

Bee Wilson, London Review of Books

With her critic’s eye, Cumming turns detective to investigate who took her mother and tell a pacy story about relationships, pride and the ramifications of what goes unsaid

Susannah Butter, Evening Standard, *Books of the Year*

In a year strong in ingenious memoir, Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands…stood out, not just for its great storytelling but for Cumming’s wonderful ability to bring to life a Lincolnshire coastal community…its moods, characters and toxic secret-harbouring machinery

Claire Harman, Evening Standard, *Books of the Year*

This beautifully written memoir of family mystery proved one of the surprise hits of 2019

James Marriot, The Times, *Books of the Year*

[A] twisting literary mystery that also serves as a deeply moving love letter

Claire Allfree, Metro, *Books of the Year*

A complex story of family secrets, beautifully written, and illustrated

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday, *Books of the Year*

A beautiful, multi-layered story full of lost love, human motivation and tender secrets


[A] bewitching blend of history and mystery

Charlotte Heathcote, Daily Mirror

A scrupulous work of storytelling, radiant with empathy and filial affection

Hephzibah Anderson, Observer

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