The Hermit of Rothéneuf

“Hermits usually have a certain fascination for the run of people; they go and hunt them up when in their vicinity, talk to them, learn their history, look upon them as peculiarly eccentric and abnormal beings, and, finally, contribute towards the maintenance of these curious “solitaries”, going away well pleased with the experience they have gained by their informal call.

In many cases the hermits live far from an eremitic life, and can sustain themselves in some degree of comfort and ease by the peculiar choice of their self-imposed calling. You expect to find an unkempt old man with flowing locks, and long patriarchal beard, leaning on a staff, and living in a disorderly cabin, but being the supposed possessor of untold wealth ; curt, top, in manner, resenting all intrusion, and foregoing the life of an ordinary individual, performing this mental feat of endurance in his solitary seclusion.

But hermits differ.
Fouré 1
This one, on the Brittany shores, is far from an unkempt, unshaven man with a belligerent attitude, although living alone in his own peculiar way. His face strong, and his appearance manly, in priest’s garb, is prepossessing, and he is more than usually interesting by his genial manners and the curious life he has led — carving the rocks persistently for years with the most unique and grotesque figures conceivable.

Thirty long years has this man -an educated man- seen peculiar designs in the rocks that slope down gradually to the seashore, and so has chiselled out these imaginary figures into marked designs, designs of the most -shall I be rude enough to say- inartistic, ugly, and weird forms the mind could possibly invent.

But this is where the interest and originality come in.
Fouré 2
Thirty odd years of continual and well-nigh daily toil, and hard toil at that ! — and the result? Curious, very curious perhaps, is a just judgment on his works, especially when reflecting on the lapse of time spent on ornamenting over so vast an area of the beautiful rugged rocks placed there by Nature, and the more so when we dwell upon the fact that it comes from a cultured mind originally intended for the Church : upon this last point, however, I speak under correction. The reason he dedicated his life to this extraordinary occupation I failed to gather, but there the fact remains, and the hermit of Rotheneuf dearly loves his work and finds comfort in it. Naturally, all sorts of ideas cross the mind ; was it a love affair, an early unsuccessful matrimonial life, a failure in some particular venture resulting in the renunciation of his worldly goods and friends and all ? This is but conjecture, and the cause of his strange life and habits seem known to himself alone.
Fouré 3
He can be seen going to and fro from his home in the quiet little village of Rotheneuf, or mallet and chisel in hand, hard at his labours hammering the steep and rugged inclines not very far distant from his home.

When approaching the seashore you can hear the ring of his tools, which guides you to his whereabouts. If seen, as is mostly usual, in the daytime, except by nomads who are about at all times, the collection of carvings, the tortured faces and figures of his imagination, can be studied closely and are not so weird perhaps as if seen at night.
Fouré 4
Some are posing on an artificial wall, upright to waist like a bust on a pedestal ; others, supine as in death ; some, alto-relievo ; still others, large or pygmean. But there is a predominant expression of feature all round, likened to a cut and painted cocoanut with the shell and fibre intact, so often observed in fruiterer’s shops.

There is the squint-eyed giant of fairyland tales, and others of pantomimic gesture ; a soul-sick Datto chief in frowning meditation, or a Japanese, even, with the look of hara-kiri on his face ! Some Atlantes-like, bearing the weight of the rock above them on their shoulders, or others projecting Uke a human gargoyle from the roof of a noble edifice.
Fouré 5
Pathways and little walls are made between the varied groups. But the weirdness of the sight is rendered more acute at night time, in a profound silence broken only by the rippling of the waves on the moonwhitened rocks and the seashore below ; the light, filtering through nooks and crannies on the rugged surface, streaking and splashing the features of those grotesque figures making them pallid, faint, and deathlike, and the little gnomes and devils resemble, more than ever, beings of a central world.”

From R. Brooks Popham, “Hither and Thither”, (W.J. Ham-Smith, London), 1912, pp 285-288.
“Air Chief Marshal Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham, GCVO KCB CMG DSO AFC (18 September 1878 – 20 October 1953) was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force. During the First World War he served in the Royal Flying Corps as a wing commander and senior staff officer. Remaining in the new Royal Air Force after the War, Brooke-Popham was the first commandant of its Staff College at Andover and later held high command in the Middle East. He was Governor of Kenya in the late 1930s. Most notably, Brooke-Popham was Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command only months before Singapore fell to Japanese troops.”

“Abbé Fouré – called the hermit of Rothéneuf – was born in Saint-Thual, Canton Tinténiac, on March 7, 1839 (note 1). William, his grandfather from father’s side was a tenant of Stephen Augustus Baude Vieuville, the Marquis de Chateauneuf, who was guillotined at the age of eighty-two, on the Place du Champ de Mars, Rennes, May 4, 1793.

His childhood, rocked in memories of the Revolution, passed amid the countryside of peaceful St. Thual: here was born in his soul of a Breton peasant, the desire for solitude and daydreaming. The rector of the parish, having noticed his piety, taught him the rudiments of Latin. As a young man he was sent to the Petit-Séminaire of Saint-Meen, from where he entered the Grand-Seminaire of Rennes. Ordained in 1863, he served his first priestly ministry as a vicar in several parishes of the diocese. Then he was appointed rector of Paimpont.

From this period of his life he retained an unfailing memory. He was a great fisherman, an intrepid hunter and he loved the contemplative life. And he loved his dear church, whose steeple is reflected in the pond, on which glide, in their robes of mist, the mysterious “white ladies”. He loved getting lost in the mysteries of this strange Brocéliande Forest, where according to the folklorist, legends are as many as the leaves. In the worlds of Merlin the Magician, the fairy Vivianne and of Val-sans-Retour, in this Breton paradise of fairies, knights of the Round Table, King Arthur … the future sculptor of Rothéneuf found his mindset and inspiration for his future works.

When abbé Fouré was rector of Paimpont, the forges, now dormant, were in full operation. They were the richness, the soul and the glory of the parish. In the year 1866, a rumor spread in the community that they would be closed. The princes of Orleans, who had left for London, were then the owners of both the forest and the furnaces. At this news, the charitable rector departed for England. In front of the princes, he pleaded with his whole soul the cause of his parishioners and their furnaces. He lost the case: the decision was irrevocable. Deeply saddened, he returned to his flock. Shortly after, he was appointed to be the rector of the parish of Retiers, and after this of the parish of Langouet, Canton Hede.
Meanwhile old age was coming. The rector had become deaf. After this he got paralysis of speech. He was thinking of retirement: where to go? He asked advice from the rector of Rothéneuf. This rector described his parish, bounded by the sea and the wild rocks. Abbé Fouré resigned as a rector, and went to Rothéneuf, where he rented a small apartment. That was in October 1893.

Now, it is no longer the vision of the legendary Brocéliande forest, or the green and quiet countryside of Langouet; it will be the sight of the sea that alone will charm the dreaming soul of the old Breton priest….
Fouré 6
During his walks in the woods and along hollow roads, he already had the same observation, amusing himself to suspect a whole mysterious world in the silhouettes of trees and the folds of their ancient roots, writhing like snakes on the side of the ditches. Making use of the contours of the rock and bends of a limb, or giving a boost to let arise from granite or oak the work begun by nature: this was the world of the hermit of Rothéneuf.

To occupy his solitude and idleness, he began to work, digging rock and granite with his chissel. He never had any lessons or got advice, and his instruments were rudimentary.
Rotheneuf 1
Here are les Rochers Sculptés. Topics rush, settle down, scramble. There it is, splashed by the spray and tossed by the waves, a primitive artwork, strange, that reminds of grimacing silhouettes of medieval gargoyles. Dominating the whole, a high Calvaire blesses this stunning stone museum….
Fouré  10
But let us especially visit the ermitage. Above the crenellated wall which serves as a fence, grinning and naive heads emerge, enlivened by green eyes, gaping mouths and shiny colored hair. They seem to watch the visitor ironically. They are called: Enguerrand de Val, Pia de Kerlamar, Marc de Langrais, Yvonne du Minihic, Perrine des Falaises, Adolphe de la Haye, Cyr de Hindlé, Jeanne de Lavarde, Karl de la Ville-au-Roux, Gilette du Havre and Benoît de la Roche.

In the interior the basic workbench on which the roots of oak turned into snakes, owls and dragons. On this bench, his latest work rests unfinished. Here is his portrait, with a natural grandeur. Here is the bench where he painted his works, and the chair, decorated with devices, in which so often he sat down to give graciously thousands and thousands of autographs for countless visitors.
Fouré 7
Of course, I cannot describe all the works of the hermit, whether they are arranged in galleries by the owner of this curious museum, or are grouped in the garden and in different parts of the beautiful manor….

Having carved wood and granite for twenty years and having made the fortune of Rothéneuf with his primitive art, Abbé Fouré – the last of the hermits of France – died piously in his small manor house, surrounded by oak statues. It was February 10, 1910.”
Fouré 8
See also
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The “Association des amis de l’oeuvre de l’Abbé Fouré” is active in documenting the life and works of Adolphe-Julien Fouré. A research by Françoise Genty, member of the association, has revealed a number of English publications about the abbot, dating from the early years of the 20th century.
“Rothéneuf is a village in the north west of France, situated north-east from Saint-Malo, about five kilometres alongside the coast. Administratively, it is part of the commune of Saint-Malo, in the département of Ille-et-Vilaine.
The village is a seaside resort but is famous for its sculpted rocks, “rochers sculptés”. Abbé Fouré (1839-1910), having suffered a stroke at the age of 30, which left him paralyzed on one side, retreated to a life as a hermit in the cliffs of Rothéneuf. He carved over 300 grotesque and bizarre faces and figures into the rock.”
rotheneuf 2


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