This previously unknown ‘grands album’ featuring 66 albumen prints is expected to bring £100,000-150,000 as part of the Photographs sale May 25.
For six weeks in August, September, and October 1857, 25,000 men from the French Imperial Guard conducted exercises under the command of Napoleon III at a vast military camp at Châlons-sur-Marne in the Grand Est.
Thousands of day-trippers came to watch and Le Gray commissioned to record camp life, the manoeuvres of infantry and cavalry and the officers in the relatively new medium of photography. The pictures were later bound in green leather albums, each with a dedication and the imperial arms embossed to the cover and presented by the emperor to his favourite officers. Perhaps a total of 28 copies were created in two different sizes, each unique in its selection and sequence of images.
The images are among the best‐known and earliest photographs of military activities. They are also the most poetic, taken by the master of the wet-collodion process in what in 1857 were difficult conditions for photography.
This particular album was given by Emperor Napoleon III to his highest-ranking officer, Comte Auguste Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angély (1794-1870), the Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Guard and Marshal of France. It has been kept in the family home in the Seine Maritime region of Normandy for more than 160 years and was recently rediscovered in a drawer by one of his heirs.
Many of the Camp de Châlons albums have been broken up over the years and it is more common for incomplete copies and single prints to come for sale.
With a total of 66 albumen prints (44 scenes and 22 full or three-quarter length portraits), this is the most complete Camp de Châlons album to appear at auction and contains more prints than any of the other six Camp de Châlons ‘grands albums’ in private hands.
Of particular note are the two most celebrated misty morning scenes - Manœuvres de Cavalerie de la Garde Impériale and Manœuvres du 3 Octobre 1857 – and a six-part panorama capturing a 360-degree rendering of the camp from an elevated vantage point. Another rare image, one of the 38 of the prints annotated by Regnaud, shows the emperor on horseback on the day of Mass.