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Alfred III Potocki (1886 -1958) was the fourth and last Potocki to own Łańcut castle. Marrying late in life and childless, Alfred devoted his energy and talent to maintaining Łańcut’s pre-1914 splendour, while entertaining Europe’s social and political elites. The losses brought about by WWI and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 were largely compensated with Nicolas Potocki’s Parisian fortune, inherited in 1922. During the interwar period Łańcut became the unofficial “salon” of the Second Polish Republic, hosting, among many others, the King and Queen of Romania in 1923 and the Duke and Duchess of Kent in 1937. Both visits underpinned strategic objectives of the Polish state threatened by its Soviet and Nazi neighbours.
Alfred was a man of the world, having circumnavigated the globe before the age of 25, with personal connections in every European capital. Although related to leading Polish, French, Austrian and Prussian families, he was above all an anglophile. His time at Oxford instilled in him a lasting taste for the British lifestyle and sport.
With it naturally came an active social life which extended to the interwar Anglo-American elite, with Łańcut and the London social season at its centre. Alfred’s international connections were given an extra sense of purpose when his brother George was appointed Poland’s ambassador to the USA in 1937. By that time Alfred was regularly shuttling between London, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw, carrying out unofficial diplomacy on behalf of the Polish government, punctuated by winter stopovers in New York, Washington and Palm Beach.
The castle, remarkably, survived three wars unscathed. Alfred Potocki left his home forever in July 1944 before the fast-advancing Red Army, having shipped most of his art collection to his Liechtenstein relatives in Vienna. He is alas remembered to this day in Poland for this sad development rather than for other valuable contributions to his country. Much less is known of Alfred’s exemplary attitude during the German occupation until 1944 or his earlier efforts benefiting Poland’s economic reform.
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As a first-born, Alfred was destined to inherit the Łańcut estate from his father Roman and become its “orydnat”. The entail (ordynacja in Polish) is an ancient form of ownership ensuring that an estate remains undivided by succession or partition. It was only granted to the largest properties of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but was maintained in partitioned Poland under Russian and Austrian rule and during the interwar period. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the family’s first-born son ensured its continued influence. During the partitions it offered the additional advantage of preventing Polish land falling into foreign hands, as the sons of leading families rarely married outside a narrow circle. Entails are now largely abolished in Europe and trust law is used instead.
Alfred’s father, Roman Potocki, was good looking and charming but not naturally suited for politics and estate management. Had the times allowed, he would have probably preferred to follow his artistic bent. Nonetheless Roman’s creative energy and fortune were put to good use by his wife Elżbieta Radziwiłł, whom he married in 1885 in Berlin.
Born to a French mother, Marie de Castellane, and a Polish father with close family ties to the Hohenzollern dynasty, Elżbieta (aka Betka) had impeccable taste and demanding standards, both by breeding and inclination.
The resulting modernisation of Łańcut, executed in a 20-year period by Roman and Betka is still visible today. The couple managed to retain the prestigious military heritage of the castle and its 18th century French elegance, while transforming it into a grand residence offering all the modern comforts.
Brought up between Vienna and Łańcut, educated by private tutors and surrounded by tradition, culture and wealth, Alfred was above all a man of pre-1914 imperial Europe. Not naturally suited for military life or politics like his younger brother George (Jerzy in Polish), Alfred devoted his life to maintaining Łańcut as a home open to guests and a timeless enclave of ancient Polish traditions.
Łańcut had several brushes with catastrophe during World War I, but was always spared destruction and plundering. The front lines between the Austrians and the Russians ran nearby and both armies were briefly stationed in Łańcut. At the height of the Polish-Bolshevik war in July 1920, Alfred readied his staff and estate for an onslaught which fortunately never came that far west, but gave him ample experience for what was to come in 1939.
Although Poland rejoiced at its recovered independence. The first world war, which in Poland lasted from 1914 until 1920, had devastated the surrounding countryside. A sentence from his posthumous memoirs summarizes the country’s predicament: “We had inherited a ruin, but some of our politicians in Warsaw seemed to imagine that a free and independent Poland must be a land overflowing with milk and honey. An extraordinary air of unreality prevailed”.
The Łańcut entail included 19,000 hectares of land, of which approximately half were forest, as well as the Potocki palace in Lwów. Starting in 1918, Alfred pre-empted the need for land reform and general relief by setting up a foundation, which apportioned plots of a few hectares each to war veterans. He also assisted the local peasants with the difficult reconstruction effort. Land reform voted in the late 1930s reduced the entail by nearly half, to which Alfred submitted without bitterness.
Roman Potocki had greatly developed the entail’s industrial footprint by expanding the distillery and brewery, both founded in the 18th century, adding sawmills and brick kilns. Following the discovery of oil in Eastern Galicia in the 1860s, he also acquired stakes in several fields. The area was bitterly fought over between Poles and Ukrainians in 1918-1920 before being incorporated into Poland. Alfred continued his father’s diversification strategy away from agriculture, consolidating his investments in oil by extending into refining and acquiring stakes in critical industries such as the Chrzanów locomotive factory, the Tomaszewski textile mills in Łódź and above all the Laura & Königs steelworks in Upper Silesia, which had also accrued to Poland in 1923.
The significant French inheritance of his uncle Nicolas Potocki in 1922 gave Alfred the necessary capital to more than cover war losses and indulge in old and new pleasures such as horse racing and hunting as well as polo and golf.
The 1920s were years of frenzy and renewal for those who could afford the pleasures of Paris and London or the energy of American cities. Having sold Nicolas’ imposing hôtel particulier to the French state in 1923, Alfred acquired a smaller townhouse in Neuilly. He also held on for a few years to his country estate outside Paris, la Grange-Colombe, where he hosted pheasant shoots. Nicolas’ excellent former chef stayed on. Alfred sent Kent, an Englishman previously employed at Łańcut as a gamekeeper, to look after the neighbouring pheasant farm of Croix St-Jacques.
In 1924, Alfred invited two of his brothers, George and Roman, his cousins Adam and Zygmunt Zamoyski and Bolesław (Bolo) Tyszkiewicz to a hunting safari along the White Nile, deep in the Sudan.
Compared to the earlier adventures of his uncle Józef in Somaliland or Ethiopia, Alfred’s expedition was a luxury sporting holiday, where the hunters never ventured far from the river, returning every evening to the floating comfort of the Gordon Pasha. His trophies to this day adorn the walls of the Łańcut museum carriage house and a stone lion, commemorating the trip, stands in the garden surrounding the castle.
The following year Alfred travelled to the United States where he witnessed the inauguration of President Coolidge and called on old friends such as Consuelo and Gladys Vanderbilt in New York. Alfred was interested in the new, vibrant America which was overtaking the old continent.
He saw a Ford car being assembled in 11 minutes in Detroit and admired the art collections at the homes of Andrew Mellon in Washington and Joseph Widener in Philadelphia, which would form the core of the future National Gallery in Washington. In a memorable trip in 1933, Alfred accompanied his Washington friend Cissie Patterson to a large party given by William R. Hearst at his “castle” in San Simeon. He used his time in California to admire the treasures of the Huntington Library and visit the Kellogg’s Arabian stud, which boasted several descendants of his uncle’s famous stallion Skowronek.
The picture would not be complete without India. On his world tour before WWI Alfred had spent several weeks travelling west to east from the Maharajah of Bikaner’s residence in Jodhpur to his encounter with the Dalai Lama in Sikkim, and north to south from Benares to Madras and Ceylon. In 1932, Alfred returned for a prolonged shooting safari hosted by the rulers of Indore, Udaipur and Bhopal. Some of them, the Maharajahs of Cooch Behar, Kapurthala and Bikaner visited Alfred in Łańcut the following summers.
Alfred’s first exercise in social diplomacy was a six-months stay in Paris in early 1919 at the time of the Peace Conference which reorganised the map of Europe and confirmed Poland’s restoration as a sovereign state. He witnessed first-hand Poland’s difficult negotiations for its future borders, during which in his own words “we had too many advisors and too few real friends”.
Once his financial affairs in Paris were settled in 1923, Alfred’s inclinations and his social circle led him to England. He returned nearly every late spring for the London season and occasional shooting invitations in the fall. Alfred was a regular guest at the royal lodge at Ascot and befriended the Duke and Duchess of York. He noted in his diary the quiet and sincere demeanour of a man who would become king a decade later.
The summer months were spent at home entertaining a very diverse group of guests. All the important diplomats posted to Warsaw were invited to Łańcut throughout the interwar period such as Francesco Tommasini for Italy, Jules Laroche for France or Anthony Drexel-Biddle for the USA. A small group of friends among them returned on a regular basis: Hugh and Ynès Gibson of the US, Adrian Carton de Wiart who was head of the first British miliary mission, Aleksander Skrzyński, Poland’s twice Minister of Foreign Affairs. A highlight of these early years was the state visit of Ferdinand and Mary of Romania, who overnighted in Łańcut.
Alfred’s social activity became less frivolous with the growing tension surrounding Poland. Józef Beck who directed Poland’s foreign policy, had become Poland’s de facto ruler after Marshal Pilsudski’s death in 1935. Warsaw pursued a policy of equidistance between Berlin and Moscow, signing a non-aggression pact with the former in 1934. Hitler’s assurances to Poland worried its French ally who signed a treaty of mutual assistance with Soviet Union the following year, but seemed to be initially taken at face value by Beck.
Łańcut and Alfred’s connections were used as an informal sounding board of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Between 1934 and 1936, Alfred met on different occasions with most of the Nazi leadership in Berlin, always accompanied by Poland’s ambassador Józef Lipski. He was also asked to host Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, with Lipski in tow, at Łańcut in October 1935.
The remilitarisation of the Rhineland by Hitler in 1936 sounded alarm bells across Europe but was not met with a strong response by France or Britain. Poland nonetheless sought assurances in Paris and London, and Alfred was asked once more to contribute. He had extended an invitation to Łańcut to the then Duke and Duchess of York, who had since ascended the British throne.
It was decided that the king’s brother George, and his wife Marina of Kent would instead travel to Poland the following summer. The visit, which Jozef Beck and his wife briefly joined, was considered a success. The couple, greeted to the sound of “God Save the King” at Łańcut station, later rode, played golf and were entertained by Alfred’s close family and mutual friends. The Duke of Kent, until his tragic death in 1942, and his son Edward remained staunch friends of Poland.
Alfred spent the last two winters before the war in the USA, both to see his brother George who had been appointed ambassador in 1937, and also to sound out the reactions of the American elites in case of a war with Germany. With the annexation of Austria and the invasion of the Czech Republic, Hitler’s intentions were becoming clear and Beck’s foreign policy had not produced the expected results. Poland was next. Yet American isolationism seemed hard to shake off. Few at the time, apart for veterans of the Bolshevik war such as General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, foresaw a threat coming from the Soviet Union. Alfred also expected, like his long-time friend and diplomat Duff Cooper, that Hitler and Stalin would eventually enter into conflict with one another.
The outbreak of WWII did not catch Alfred by surprise but the brutality of its occupation did. Nonetheless, thanks to his decisive action and unique position, Łańcut remained throughout the war a haven of quasi normality in a period of suffering and barbarity. A long list of senior Wehrmacht officers were billeted at the castle. Some of them, like generals von Metz and Altrichten, provided Alfred with invaluable protection against the excesses of the Gestapo. He was thus able to feed, employ – often fictitiously – and protect hundreds of inhabitants and refugees, both gentile and Jewish. Alfred saved Łańcut’s synagogue from destruction in September 1939. Later in the war, he obtained the release of all the men, over 60 in total, who had been rounded by the Gestapo in a mass arrest in 1943 and were destined to die in a nearby slave labour camp. More details can be found in the attached article, which was originally published in Polish in Gazeta Łańcucka in April 2016.
Alfred left Łańcut forever in July 1944 before the rapidly advancing Red Army, having despatched most of his family chattels to Vienna beforehand, with the cooperation of the German officers billeted at the castle.
Alfred’s estate was confiscated in 1944 and the castle turned into a museum, which is today remarkably well maintained.
Alfred eventually settled in France and married Izabela Jodko-Narkiewicz after his mother died. Sadly, he was forced to gradually sell his art collection. Some pieces have returned to Poland, a few were acquired by his relatives, others have ended up in European and American museums.
Two very different pieces can be admired today at the J. Paul Getty Museum set between the Pacific Ocean and the Hollywood Hills, not far from where Alfred once ventured in 1933. They tell a recurrent tale.
One is a remarkable portrait by Titian of Alfonso d’Avalos, a general and diplomat in the service of the Emperor Charles V Habsburg. It had been acquired by Felix Potocki from the collection of the last king of Poland at the end of the 18th century, and was passed on to his grand-son Nicolas in Paris. Alfred sold it to a French collector shortly after inheriting it from his uncle, believing the Titian attribution was doubtful.
The other is a cobalt blue Sèvres vase mounted on gilt bronze tripod by Pierre-Philippe Thomire, one of a pair auctioned off by the French revolutionaries at Versailles in 1794. Izabela Lubomirska acquired one for Łańcut, the Prince Regent (future King George IV) the other for Carlton House. Alfred Potocki’s vase was acquired by JP Getty in the 1950s.
War and revolution are invariably accompanied by great transfer of treasure, much of which served to found the world’s greatest museums. Peace and prosperity can return to the lands of ancient Poland. It is noteworthy that Alfred Potocki’s two properties, the Łańcut castle and the Potocki palace in Lviv, are today regularly used by the Polish and Ukrainian governments to host important bilateral meetings. There could not be a more fitting use for the former residences of a family which left its mark on the history of both nations. May it contribute to correct the mistakes of the past.
Alfred was one of the first Poles to attend Oxford, as a student at Magdalen college in 1904-05. His brother followed in his footsteps at Oriel three years later. Their time in England gave them a taste for sports, especially for golf and polo which Alfred would introduce in Łańcut.
Polo was an instant hit with both brothers, because it chimed with their family and Polish traditions of breeding and horsemanship. George, the better player of the two, joined the University Polo team.
Alfred had an opportunity to watch polo being played in India during his world tour, noting the Hindu players’ natural “sense of rhythm” and the proficiency of their British counterparts. He organised its practise in Łańcut shortly after his return home.
His father’s excellent stable master, Henry Picton, an English veteran of the Boer War, quickly transformed regular horses into polo ponies and a polo ground was organised on a riding field used for exercising by the Austrian dragoons stationed in Łańcut.
Equipment was purchased from the best London purveyors; from boots, helmets and mallets to martingales and saddles. In 1912, work started on a new polo field complete with covered spectator stands and wicker chairs. New ponies were acquired. The project would be completed a year before the outbreak of WWI. Alfred nonetheless competed with his horses at the Jockey Club in Vienna, London’s Hurlingham and even practised at the Piping Rock Club in Long Island, NY.
After World War I, having restored his finances, Alfred bought polo ponies in England to replenish his stables. He and George played in England and at Cannes-Mandelieu on the French riviera, teaming up on occasion with Major Edward “Fruity” Metcalfe, a well-known professional player. Alfred ambitioned to compete at home and abroad and formed the Łańcut polo team in 1925, made up essentially of four Potocki brothers: himself, George, Roman and Józef. In an attempt to popularize the sport, Alfred organised polo playing weeks for beginners but also invited more experienced international players. Officers of the 10th Polish cavalry regiment stationed in Łańcut also joined in.
Another very able Englishman, Captain F. Jackson, was in charge of breeding and training. By 1929, Łańcut had 30 ponies. The same year Łańcut competed and won in Poznań for the 10th anniversary of Poland’s independence, while the 15th Uhlans won a prize funded by Alfred. The following year, the Potocki brothers competed at Hurlingham, Ranelagh and Scopwick. Alas financial difficulties, combined with the growing family and professional duties of the team members, forced Alfred to disband the Łańcut Polo Club in 1931.
Alfred enjoyed golf just as much. He was an average player but valued the sport’s social side. Having played all over Europe, and as far as Pasha El Glaoui’s course in Marrakesh or the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Alfred decided to build a course at home.
The first 9-hole, designed by a Scotsman living in Poland around the hunting lodge in Julin, was inaugurated in 1932. The forest’s sandy ground lent itself well to its construction but not its upkeep as Julin lacked a reliable water source and the greens suffered in summer. Shortly after a second course was added in Łańcut’s park outside the castle’s moat – where maintenance was much easier – meandering between centuries-old trees and magnificent flower beds. An older tennis court, framed by an elegant pergola overgrown with rose bushes, completed the picture. Łańcut was truly a place transformed for the comfort and pleasure of Alfred’s guests.
While tennis was a mere distraction, golf was taken much more seriously. Leon Sapieha of neighbouring Krasiczyn, regularly came to play as did many other enthusiastic golfers such as Maria Tarnowska and Jules Laroche, the French ambassador. Karol Radziwiłł, who claimed to be Poland’s best player, is said to have challenged and beat the Duke of Kent during his visit in 1937.
This world disappeared abruptly in 1939, but the traditions started by Alfred Potocki today represent a precious founding chapter of Poland’s sporting heritage.
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