At the end of the ninteenth century a rugged aristocrat lived on the island of Tombelaine, in the bay of Mont Saint-Michel. If you have visited the Mont you will have seen Tombelaine, a little rocky heap just four miles away.
Jean, Marquis de Tombelaine was the last of a once grand family. He made his living from the sea and slept in the remnants of ancient buildings that cling to Tombelaine’s rocky summit. He knew the old stories of the Mont, handed down over generations, and told them gruffly to visitors. If visitors were brave enough to introduce themselves as the Marquis was a wild looking man. His hair was long, beard even longer. His trousers were permanently rolled up away from salty waves and almost every inch of him was grubby, but his eyes were the clear blue of a summer’s day.
And so the Marquis lived his lonely life on Tombelaine, and every evening without fail he watched the drama of the setting sun shoot colours across the sky beside Mont Saint-Michel.
Here is the Marquis de Tombelaine.
Except he isn’t. Was he a fantasist or a fraud? Possibly both, but the Marquis was originally dreamt up by two talented brothers, Étienne and Louis-Antonin Neurdein who owned a Paris photographic studio.
Entertaining the new tourist industry
Nineteenth century Paris was full of a new breed of rich who made their money in business and now had a great desire to spend it. They wanted fun and novelty and with railways being laid all over France, could easily travel to get it.
The Neurdein brothers made a tidy income selling sets of photos of landmarks and local ‘characters’ to this new breed of traveller, the tourist.
When Mont Saint-Michel became considerably more accessible in 1879 with a new causeway from the mainland they were among the first visitors, taking a set of now iconic early photographs. The brothers were so successful at promoting Mont Saint Michel the French government would later ask them to photograph Algeria, to encourage tourism. They would return to the Mont regularly to take pictures for the next thirty years.
Marquis de Tombelaine
During their first visit the Neurdein brothers saw a local character, a fisherman known as Jean le Déluge, John the Flood. He was born Joseph-Marie Gauthier in Allineuc, Brittany, but after a run in with the law and a day in prison had thought it prudent to change his name.
The Neurdein brothers knew a money spinner when the saw one and knowing their customers love of romance cheerfully posed Jean, and gave him a title after the little rock whose ruins he lived in; ‘Marquis de Tombelaine’.
The brothers printed vast quantities of their Mont Saint-Michel photographs. The idea of a wild aristocrat living on Tombelaine added to the romance of the Bay and soon the ‘Marquis’ was as famous as La Mère Poulard is today.
The Marquis didn’t show the Neurdein brothers the tiniest bit of loyalty for bringing him fame and a modicum of good fortune. He gladly posed for any photographer who made it worth his while, but the Neurdein brothers’ excellent promotion skills and mass production ensured their images were the most commonly seen and copied.
Death of a man, birth of a legend
Jean le Déluge drowned in the Bay one cold stormy night in 1892, he was 39 years old. The ‘Marquis’ would have stayed an enigmatic figure, just a name under photograph, if it wasn’t for another very ambitious Parisian, Amédée Maquaire. Amédée was something of an early public relations genius who strung together a few photographs, a made-up title and a ne’er-do-well from Brittany, to create a legend.
Amédée had already made a small fortune spotting the potential for the exciting new hobby of riding velocipedes, an early bicycle propelled by working pedals on cranks fitted to the front axle. He wrote the best seller ‘Practical treatise of velocipedics. Tips for Beginners and Amateurs. Walks and Travels. Hygiene. Ordinances. Choice of the best machines.’ Sold in ‘Paris: in all the booksellers of France and the French colonies’. It ran to several editions and didn’t hurt Amédée’s own business selling velocipedes at all.
Amédée published a guidebook “Mont Saint-Michel and its Wonders, the abbey, the museum, the city, the ramparts” illustrated with photographs and engravings, in 1889. The book was a huge success and would be reissued 41 times until 1935, with copies in French and English.
At first the book cover claimed the histories and stories were taken from notes by the ‘Hermite of Tombelaine’. After 1892 this was changed to notes by the ‘Marquis de Tombeleine’. Jean was no longer around to demand commission. A paragraph about the Marquis’ life and an engraving of him were added, an engraving that looked very much like one of the photographs by the Neurdein brothers.
Extraordinary strength and prophetic abilities
By 1903 Jean’s drowning was amended in the guide to death by quicksand while rescuing someone else from drowning. A model of that terrible moment appeared in the museum on Mont Saint-Michel. The museum owner was a certain Amédée Maquaire.
by 1907 the guide’s description of the Marquis’ had grown significantly and he had become something of a seer “He had a wealth of special knowledge about the flora of the region, the influence of the moon on the tides, changes in weather. It was enough for him to touch the granite of a rock and feel it’s humidity to confidently predict to the tourists who questioned him what weather would do the next day. He also predicted, according to the direction of the winds and the observation of the moon, the success or otherwise of the Monegasque fishermen.. “
Thousands of copies of Amédée’s guidebook were sold to tourists who carried it back with them across the world. Soon the legend was repeated in new guidebooks and references to the Mont. Stories appeared by people who claimed to have met the Marquis crediting him with extraordinary strength and prophetic abilities. He was even said to haunt a house some miles away in Avranches.
The legend unravels
By the mid 1920’s the myth was unravelling. Etienne Dupont, writing ‘The legends of Mont Saint-Michel’ in 1924 stated “Nowadays, Tombelaine has had a resurgence of popularity; the island owes it to a poor devil whom the Parisian press raised to the marquisate. The postcard and the album card popularised this vagrant who settled, around 1875, in a cabin on the island”
There were a few ‘Marquis de Tombelaine’ imitators but without Jean’s success. A couple of men in the 1930’s claimed to be the Marquis’ heirs. But by WW2 it was over. The legend no longer appeared in guidebooks, except as a small footnote on the gullibility of the romantic tourist.
The tides and currents around Mont Saint-Michel are very strong and there are many places where the sands are dangerous. If you plan to visit Tombelaine island it is best to walk over with a guide.
Photogenic, Visual research notebook by Marie-Eve Bouillon