Joseph Wladislas Edmond Potocki de Montalk, known in New Zealand as Edmond de Montalk, was born in Paris, France, on 14 February 1836. His father, Józef Franciszek Jan Potocki, was a Polish émigré of noble descent who had arrived in Paris after the 1830–31 revolt against Russia, and was married to Judith Charlotte Anne O'Kennedy (O'Kenedy), who was held by family tradition to be an illegitimate daughter of King George IV of England. Józef Potocki later fought in the Spanish army under General Juan Prim. A family account says that after returning from service he did not rejoin his wife in Paris. There is a suggestion that he was killed in action, possibly during Prim's campaign in Mexico in 1861–62, or he may have died in Paris in 1863. In France the family adopted the name de Montalk.
Little is known of the first 30 years of the life of Edmond de Montalk. He matriculated at the Université de Paris and may have read for a degree in literature; he may also have taken a medical qualification. After his studies he went to London where he raised funds for Garibaldi's campaign, and in 1859 went to Italy to join his army. He was wounded in action, and decorated.
Returning to France de Montalk married Marie Duault; two children, a son and a daughter, were born to them. Marie died sometime before 1868, when Edmond emigrated with the children to New Zealand. In Wellington he married Alexandrina Williamina Sutherland Macalister on 30 April 1869. They were to have seven sons and five daughters.
In New Zealand de Montalk worked as a teacher of languages. He seems to have had private means and during at least some of the next 30 years was able to rely on income from private pupils and part-time institutional appointments. He may have taught in Wellington after his arrival and marriage; certainly in 1873 and 1874 he was teaching at Nelson College. In 1874 he went to Dunedin to a position as the foundation teacher of French and Italian at the University of Otago. He also taught part time at the High School of Otago. He resigned the university position early in 1877 and went to the Jackson's Bay Special Settlement in south Westland in order 'to do the best I can for my family, as I could do nothing for them in the Scottish, cantish Dunedin, where it is useless to teach anything unless your mother has had the wisdom to give you birth north of the Tweed.'
At Okuru de Montalk worked as a storekeeper. In the part of the settlement between the Okuru and Turnbull rivers there were 53 settlers, mostly Italians, among whom de Montalk found some 'old Garibaldian friends.' Relations between the different nationalities in the settlement were often strained. One settler later recalled an incident when a Pole who spoke several languages (possibly de Montalk) intervened in a disturbance between Poles, Germans and Italians. De Montalk urged more government funding for the settlers, but with the settlement's decline he found his position economically unviable and moved to Christchurch in 1878 or early 1879.
There he published in 1879 a textbook, Elements of French literature. In May 1881 he was appointed one of the six foundation teachers of Christchurch Boys' High School. He held that part-time position until 1886, and in September 1885 was also appointed a master at Christ's College, where he remained until December 1887.
De Montalk moved to Auckland in 1891, and in 1894 took up an appointment as a lecturer at Auckland University College. He lectured in French and German and founded the Auckland branch of the Alliance française. In these years he became an officer of the Académie française, and a member of the Société de linguistique de Paris. He is said to have been accorded a military salute by a visiting Italian or French naval vessel in the Waitemata Harbour. He died suddenly at his residence in Mount Eden on 6 September 1901, after teaching that morning at the University College. Alexandrina de Montalk died in 1911.
Edmond de Montalk's family background and education served to distinguish him from the settlers of predominantly British stock in whose company he found himself in New Zealand. His European origins helped to make him an effective teacher of languages, whose work established European language teaching in several major secondary schools and two of the original university foundations in New Zealand.