Souvenirs du Camp photo

Manoeuvres de Cavalerie de la Garde Impériale, one of the most celebrated images from Gustave Le Gray's Souvenirs du Camp.

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On the market for the first time in over 160 years, a recently discovered complete copy of Gustave Le Gray’s famous Souvenirs du Camp de Châlons has sold for £260,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).

This previously unknown ‘grand album’ featuring 66 albumen prints had been expected to bring £100,000-150,000 as part of a Phillips Photographs sale on May 25.

North African soldiers

An image of north African soldiers at camp titled Zouaves de la Garde Impériale (Le Jeu de la Drogue).

For six weeks in August, September and October 1857, 25,000 men from the French Imperial Guard conducted exercises under the command of emperor Napoleon III at a vast military camp at Châlons-sur-Marne in the Grand Est.

Thousands of day-trippers came to watch the spectacle and Le Gray was commissioned to record it 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 of camp life and infantry and cavalry manoeuvres are among the best-known and earliest photographs of military activities. They are also the most atmospheric, taken by the master of the wet-collodion process in what were difficult conditions for photography in 1857.

This particular album was given by 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 had been kept in his family home in the Seine Maritime region of Normandy 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 loose 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 ‘grands albums’ in private hands.

Of particular note are the two most celebrated misty morning scenes – Manoeuvres de Cavalerie de la Garde Impériale and Manoeuvres 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.