The album Przedwojenne dwory: Najpiękniejsze fotografie (Prewar Manors: The Most Beautiful Photographs) by Jacek Regini-Zacharski makes readers aware of the cultural and civilisational role which the houses of noble families played in Polish tradition. It also demonstrates the scale of the destruction induced by the policies of the foreign authorities of partitioned Poland as well as the lawlessness of wartime and the communist era, when the count of manors and palaces on the Polish grounds went from over 20,000 in 1939 to a mere two hundred – most of which were in ruins – half a decade later. As a result of the post-Yalta changes, a staggering majority of the family estates was lost, along with the extensive lands from which Poland was ‘removed.’
Even though only one percent of the old noble properties has been preserved, the Polish manor has nevertheless survived. It is permanently embedded in the consciousness of Poles, for instance as an important element of major literary works. The culture of an estate would emanate throughout its surroundings, not only in the sense that the landowners ‘oppressed the peasants,’ but also because they, as the most educated and influential social stratum, were the custodians of Polishness during the most difficult times when the state lost its independence.
The origins of a typical Polish manor may be traced back to the sixteenth century, when, following Giorgio Vasari’s recommendations, the increasingly rich members of the nobility began isolating their residences and placing them at a distance from other outbuildings. Due to the harsh climate at this latitude, they were raised on stone or brick foundation, which acted as thermal insulation from the low temperatures in autumn, winter, and spring. Hipped roofs (rather than gable ones) were also used, and straw was gradually superseded by wooden shingles, and with time also by tiles or tin sheets.
A mansard roof would add an extra storey to the houses, thus making the attic habitable. Later on, multi-storey manors started appearing, although the convenient style of spreading the house out on single level, with a characteristic portico with a tympanum usually supported by two or four columns, dominated. Even though the manor architecture welcomed foreign influences, it preserved its own ‘patriotic’ canon of construction.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a need arose to define the ‘manor style,’ which formed part of an architectural current described as national, domestic, or native. The historicist movement in Polish school of architecture was strongly ideologised – by borrowing from the noble housing, architecture nurtured the national and independence traditions, an act which was also aimed against the partitioners.
The armed struggle of the First World War was unkind to the manors, however, the biggest harm was suffered by the newly emerged Second Polish Republic. During the Polish-Soviet war, palaces and manors, symbolising the despised ‘feudal Poland,’ were at the centre of the actions of Tukhachevsky and Budyonny’s armies.
Many noble properties were ‘completely annihilated, and eventually, following the Bolshevik tradition, fouled by feces (Kurier Warszawski, 20.08.1920). Chronicles written during that time present images of unimaginable bestiality, cruelty, and blind barbarity. […] One should also not forget manors, which after the Peace of Riga were no longer on Polish territory. Even though they are long gone, they still exist in memoirs – for instance in Storm from the East by Maria Dunin-Kozicka and Conflagration by Zofia Kossak-Sczucka, to name the most notable ones.
After two decades of reconstructing Polish statehood, another tragic period started for the owners and residents of Polish manors, who had been healing their painful wounds. World War Two was linked to two occupations. The Soviet one was especially targeted at demolishing everything that belonged to the lords, which at the time included places whose history turned them into patriotic mementos.
While browsing through the old photographs of Polish residences and reading their stories in Jacek Reginia-Zacharski’s book, one will come across telling information, such as: ‘after the damage committed by the Soviet partisans in 1943, only an oval vase, once decorating the end of the access alley, was left…’ The estate in question is the Karpowicz manor in Czombrów, Nowogródek Voivodeship (now located in Belarus), which according to many was the archetype of Soplicowo from Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. The wooden manor in Merechevschina on river Busiaczka in Polesie Voivodeship, where Tadeusz Kościuszko was born on 4th July, 1746, received the same treatment from Soviet guerrilla fighters.
After the war, the process of destruction of manors continued. Even those which survived communist rule have lost their character, possibly irreversibly. The once stylish buildings now hosted, at best, schools, but more frequently State Agricultural Farms’ offices, and sometimes even barns and sties. Despite the renovation efforts, these days many manors have only survived on photographs.
Thanks to photographs, some interiors have been restored or reconstructed, such as Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s villa in Sulejówek. Apart from the simplicity and functionality of a Polish manor, the album also reflects its spirit, created by the plan and décor of the interiors, as well as the surroundings of the family houses. The pictures show some of the garden and park solutions that don’t exist anymore, as well as ones that have somehow survived, instead of a non-existent house, which once constituted the centre of a multi-generational family’s life.
The entourage of the documented pre-war manors is most absorbing when, apart from walls, we can also see the people. Noble seniors with white hair, gracious ladies in chic outfits, officers in formal uniforms, elegant young men, children with glimmering and joyous eyes, and inconspicuously alert servants – all of them engaged in eternal daily rituals, or celebratory ones: weddings, balls, concerts, hunts, or the Dożynki harvest festival. Looking at these photographs, one can’t help but ask: who was bothered by this?…
Przedwojenne dwory. Najpiękniejsze fotografie (Prewar Manors: The Most Beautiful Photographs – editor’s translation)
cooperation on the selection of photos: Łucjan Madziar
RM publishing, Warsaw 2013
dimensions: 210 x 260 mm, 104 pages
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, July 2013, transl. AM, July 2016