Théophile-Malo de la Tour d'Auvergne-Corret (1743-1800) was born Theophile-Malo Corret, son of a lawyer and bailiff of the Chateau of Kergoet. The town of Carhaix, which adopted him posthumously, was only one of a number of possible birthplaces. As a young man, he served as a soldier in the French and Spanish armies, and received from the King of Spain an award for bravery in saving the life of a Catalan officer. Claiming to be descended from an illegitimate son of Turenne, in 1777 he added La Tour d'Auvergne to his name. After the Revolution, he distinguished himself in the so-called "infernal columns", both in Savoy and the Eastern Pyrenees. After valiant service, illness persuaded him to retire from the army, and he devoted his new-found leisure to study of the Breton language. Captured by the British, when a ship on which he was travelling went aground, he was imprisoned in a galley off the South West coast of England. There, between 1794 and 1797 he continued work on his French-Celtic dictionary. Following his liberation, he discovered that the youngest and only surviving son of a fellow erudite, named Le Brigant, was threatened with conscription to the armies of the Directoire. He offered himself as a replacement, and was accepted. His bravery in action was acknowledged, when Napoleon conferred on him the title of "first grenadier of the republic". However, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Oberhausen in Bavaria. His remains were interred at Oberhausen, where he had fallen.
The memorial consists of a portrait statue in military uniform and wearing the braided hair of a grenadier. La Tour d'Auvergne is represented clasping his sabre to his chest and making a gesture in the direction of a pile of attributes, including various accessories of a grenadier's uniform and a book. Although this has been read as indicating his initial reluctance to accept the title of Premier Grenadier it is more likely to signify his proud acknowledgement of the two ruling passions of his life, military service and the study of Celtic history and languages. The Magasin Pittoresque at the time of the unveiling in 1841 gave an account of the statue, "With his right hand he makes a gesture towards the insignia of the grenadier, which he unwillingly leaves: 'Noli tangere! Do not touch these! They are the limit of my ambition', a book, one which never left his side, can be seen in the trophy on the ground beside him". The reporter identifies the book as Caesar's Commentaries, with its account of the origins of the Gauls. (Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1841, pp.369-371) On the pedestal are four historical reliefs, showing incidents from La Tour d'Auvergne's career. Although there has been some argument in one case over the precise incident represented, these are generally accepted as being the following: La Tour d'Auvergne saving a Catalan officer at the Siege of Mahon (S. side): La Tour d'Auvergne enters Chambery, a sword in hand (West side): La Tour d'Auvergne taking leave of the Le Brigant family (North side): The death of La Tour d'Auvergne at Oberhausen (East side).
Renewed interest in La Tour d'Auvergne was awakened when, in 1837, the King of Bavaria ordered the restoration of his by then dilapidated tomb at Oberhausen. On opening the tomb, the bones were found to be in good order, as was his braided hair, a characteristic of the regiment in which he had served. (G. Bischoff, La Tour 'Auvergne, Paris, 1977, p.p.113)
The erection of a monument to La Tour d'Auvergne was proposed at a meeting of the Carhaix Municipal Council on 23 Jan 1838. Through a letter of 21 January, the Prefect, Baron Boulle, authorised the Mayor, Guillaume Bernard, to initiate discussions on the subject, and at the meeting the motion received a unanimous vote in support. At this date, the Orleans regime in France, with its head, Louis Philippe, had seemed to acquire a certain stability. Having survived the Fieschi conspiracy, the king had in 1837 enjoyed what came to be seen as his annus mirabilis. Any earlier, and the commemoration of a republican grenadier might have seemed to represent a threat. The Prefect let the meeting know that, "wishing to stick to a line of perfect agreement with the government, he had only put off giving expression to his thought, through fear that this homage might have given rise to an annoying and false interpretation." (R.Doniol, "Les Bas Reliefs de la Statue de la Tour d'Auvergne:legendes, erreurs, critiques et refutations", Le Cahiers de l'Iroise, April-June 1977, pp.53-65)
The sculptor Pierre-Jean David, known as David d'Angers, provides some interesting insights into the origins of the commission. The relevant passage in his Journal reads as follows:
"Very often I have declined to execute statues for which the commission has been offered to me, in order to oblige fellow sculptors. When it was proposed to erect a monument to La Tour d'Auvergne, I was asked to compete for it. Having learned that the statuary Suc, from Nantes, wished to make this statue, I desisted in his favour. I wrote a letter to the committee to thank them for the confidence with which they had honoured me. I told them that I was grateful for the offer, but that it was impossible for me to take on the work, and I encouraged them to take on the Nantais sculptor, speaking with great admiration of his talent, even though I suspected he was not really up to such a task. He did not get the commission, and it was Marochetti, who through intrigue and above all through the influence of M. Thiers, obtained it". (A. Bruel in his 1958 edition of David's journals has rendered the name of the Nantais sculptor as Duc, but clearly the sculptor referred to was Etienne-Nicolas-Edouard Suc 1802-1855).
In 1840, Marochetti appears to have asked the advice of the painter
Eugène Delacroix over his model of La Tour d'Auvergne (letter from
Marochetti to Delacroix, 11(?) May 1840, Fonds Piron, Ms 507 (6),
folios 49-50, Bibliothèque centrale des musées nationaux). The sculptor
wrote to Delacroix "the few words which you spoke to me concerning your
view of a monument to La Tour d'Auvergne, have borne fruit. I have
changed my opinion and have taken a quite different position in the
matter". Marochetti offered Delacroix the inducements of fine spring weather
and the floral displays at his château at Vaux, to come and visit,
concluding his letter, "let yourself be tempted and hurry because
within a fortnight La Tour d'Auvergne will be cast and I will no longer
be able to take advantage of your good advice".
The monument with only two of its reliefs was inaugurated on 27 June 1841. The Magasin Pittoresque was moved to comment that the Pantheon in Paris could remain empty, since "the entire nation is becoming a Pantheon". It commended the intention which this and other monuments to national heroes revealed of offering examples to the young. These initiatives were " a noble reaction against the causes of division which torment society". (Magasin Pittoresque, 1841, p.369) An octogenarian grenadier, in whose arms La Tour d'Auvergne had died, was discovered still living in a distant mountainous area of France, and was persuaded to attend the ceremony, at which he received the Croix d'honneur from the hands of the prefect and General Jannin. (Magasin Pittoresque, 1841, p.370) Alsoon the occasion of the unveiling the town received as a gift from the King of Bavaria a lock of the hair of La Tour d'Auvergne, and this, along with other relics, has since been kept in a casket in the office of the Mayor of Carhaix. Every year, on the anniversary of the inauguration of the monument, the casket is carried in procession to the statue by local schoolchildren in grenadiers' uniforms. (G.Bischoff, op.cit.)
The two reliefs which were present at the time of the inauguration, representing La Tour d'Auvergne entering Chambery and his death at Oberhausen, were placed on either side of the pedestal, and on the front and back were the arms of Carhaix and of La Tour d'Auvergne. (Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1841, p.369-371) The two additional reliefs, of the saving of the life of the Catalan officer, and the leave-taking with the Le Brigant family, were sent from London, where Marochetti was then living, in 1853. (see R.Doniol, op.cit, and Pol de Courcy, De Rennes a Brest et a Saint Malo, itineraire descriptif et historique. Collection des Guides Joanne, Paris, 1864. pp.276-277) Robert Doniol, in his history of the completion of the monument, has recounted, not only the difficulty experienced by the municipality in extracting from the sculptor the two outstanding reliefs, but also the protracted negotiations that their importation gave rise to with the French customs authorities. The reliefs are framed by fictive rope in bronze.
The pedestal is made from granite from Huelgoat in Brittany.