At home in the King’s Cottage

In a spacious part of west London, tucked into one of the bends of the Thames, is the open space of Kew Green. Along the south side is a row of handsome eighteenth and early nineteenth century town houses. One of them, Cambridge Cottage – a residence of the Duke of Cambridge – is now a wedding venue, where guests can delight in the sight of the Royal Botanic Gardens, onto which it looks at the rear. (The name cottage is singularly misapplied). Further along, facing the parish church of St Anne, is the King’s Cottage, which in the 1940s was the last home of Cosmo Gordon Lang, retired archbishop of Canterbury.

Cosmo Lang, by Philip de Laszlo. (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia)

Lang arrived at the King’s Cottage in the spring of 1942. First acquired by King George III, it was placed at Lang’s disposal by George VI, a natural consequence of the closeness to the royal family that he had enjoyed. The house had a private entrance into the Gardens, in which Lang walked alone or with friends ‘almost in an ecstasy of delight’. Lang was largely content to be alone in such a place, having converted one of the many rooms into a private chapel, furnished with an altar and wall hangings. And he was not idle, busying himself at the parish church, and as a preacher elsewhere, and with the business of the House of Lords. There were moments of regret at no longer being at the centre of things, and shock at the sudden death of his successor William Temple. And busy to the last, it was while hurrying to the train and to Parliament that he collapsed, and died on his way to hospital. His body rested in his own chapel before it was moved to Canterbury for cremation and the interment of his ashes.

Such is the account of Lang’s first biographer, J. G. Lockhart, written shortly after Lang’s death in 1945, based on the recollections of several who knew and spent time with him at Kew. As historians, we generally know little of the lives of our subjects after they leave public life, at which point the trail of paper evidence tends to dwindle and disappear. And so it might have remained with Lang’s last years, were it not for a chance discovery.

The catalogue of the auction of Lang’s effects, February 1946. Visible at the top are my relative’s reckoning of her spending. Image: Peter Webster

Also living in Kew in the winter of 1945/6 were my great-grandparents, in a rather more modest but nonetheless comfortable house in Leybourne Park. Among their effects that my grandmother kept is a tatty copy of A catalogue of the contents of King’s Cottage, Kew Green, to be sold at auction on the 19th and 20th of February, on behalf of Lang’s executors. What motivated my great-grandmother (it was most likely her) to take the short walk to the King’s Cottage is now lost: curiosity, perhaps, at how one of the Lords Spiritual lived, or a more practical desire to see what might be bought. But make the journey she did, as in the margins of the catalogue are marked in pencil the prices achieved for the various lots. At a cost of £59 5s she seems to have acquired a Persian rug (8 feet by 4 feet 6 inches), five afternoon tea cloths, and a set of engraved tumblers, one of which my grandmother kept. (She also spent £6 on an unidentified fourth item, which remains obscure.)

Such inventories are a rich source of information for historians of the way people have lived, and I am not one of those historians. Some later biographer of Lang may wish to trace from where Lang acquired these things. Who it was that bought them may be a puzzle that could be pieced together from the archives of the auctioneer, Messrs Knight, Frank and Rutley, still trading today as Knight Frank. The catalogue is laid out by the rooms in which the items were found, allowing a reconstruction of the interior in remarkable detail. But two things stand out for me from the catalogue as a whole.

The first is the sheer scale of Lang’s possessions. There were some 658 lots, from five main rooms, eight bedrooms, and the staff quarters in the basement. There were more than a hundred towels; four complete tea services; seventeen brandy glasses and twenty champagne flutes; nearly fifty carpets and rugs: Persian, Turkish, Indian, Wilton, Axminster. There were thirty lots of silver and a further 35 of plate, enough for a dinner for dozens of guests. For a man of Lang’s background and generation, accustomed to the company of the aristocracy, none of this would have seemed extravagant. It is an indication of how far things have changed that his more recent successors as archbishop could hardly have imagined retiring in the same style.

Most interesting to me, however, is Lang’s library, which is itemised (at least in part), and contained more than a thousand volumes. Lang is not known as a scholar in the way Temple was, and that impression is reinforced here. His enthusiasm for the novels of Walter Scott is well-known, and the catalogue lists 43 volumes of the Waverley stories. There are also novels by Thackeray and Trollope, the ‘Forsyte Saga’ by John Galsworthy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad. There are a handful of the Greek and Roman classics, but Lang’s taste in verse is more recent: George Herbert, Tennyson, Wordsworth and (for Lang the Scotsman), Robert Burns. There is writing on travel and on the antiquities of the cathedral cities; lives of the cardinals Newman and Manning, of Wellington, Disraeli, Gladstone; the letters of Queen Victoria, the war memoirs of Lloyd George. Among the historians there is Gibbon (of course), histories of England by Gardiner and Froude, and an unidentified history of the English church (there were several of these).

What is striking, though, is the thinness of Lang’s reading on theology, or indeed on any of the matters of church life and thought that had occupied the presses for decades. For whatever reason, the cataloguers concealed several books behind entries such as ‘sundry books, 38 volumes’. So it may be that these lots contained the kind of odd single volumes that seemed obscure and hard to classify: the 56 volumes on ‘religious matters’ is particularly tantalising. But as it is, we see only eight ‘Bibles and prayer books’ and two unnamed volumes by his predecessor Frederick Temple. It may be that Lang had already disposed of some books that were most obviously of their time. But when this thinness is set against a hundred bound volumes of Country Life and the satirical magazine Punch, Lang’s preoccupations in retirement are clear. His reading in solitude at the King’s Cottage was much like that of most educated Christian men of his age and class.

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