‘My highlight of 2016’ — An 1856 photograph by Gustave Le Gray

‘My highlight of 2016’ — An 1856 photograph by Gustave Le Gray

Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs, selects this rare and remarkable insight into a very specific royal event that took place 160 years ago

Made in 1856 or 1857, this photograph by Gustave Le Gray sold for $965,000 in New York in February. ‘The scene depicted is that of Napoleon III’s personal entourage of ships as they prepare to leave port,’ explains Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs. ‘On close inspection, one can make out the dignitaries and inhabitants of the city as they line the jetty for a closer view. It is a rare insight into a very specific event, 160 years ago.’

This print is rare, in part because of the exceptional richness of the tones. ‘Albumen prints have a tendency to fade over the course of time, and to lose the depth of tonality, particularly in the shadow areas, where the darkest tones exist,’ Himes explains. ‘Yet Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre (or Ships Leaving the Port of Le Havre) appears almost fresh from the developing baths. The shimmering light captured on the water enhances this effect and further adds to the attractiveness of the work.’

Le Gray, a former painter, was a giant of 19th-century photography in France, working before even the arrival of Impressionism. Despite the medium being regarded as a poor cousin to fine art, he enjoyed significant commissions for the imperial court of Napoleon III — who was a prominent patron of photography — and his seascapes in particular were hugely popular in England as well as his own country. 

Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre (navires de la flotte de Napoleon III), 1856-1857. Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative mounted on original board facsimile signature in red ink (recto). Imagesheet 12¼ x 16 in (31 x 40.5 cm). Sold for $965,000 on 17 February 2016

Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Bateaux Quittant le Port du Havre (navires de la flotte de Napoleon III), 1856-1857. Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative mounted on original board facsimile signature in red ink (recto). Image/sheet: 12¼ x 16 in (31 x 40.5 cm). Sold for $965,000 on 17 February 2016

‘The effort that went into making an image of this size, printed from a glass-plate negative, would have been monumental,’ says Himes. ‘Le Gray had a special wagon to carry the large camera and tripod, together with the sheets of glass upon which the light-sensitive chemistry would be coated moments before the exposure took place. He’d have required multiple bottles of developing fluids and a tent erected on site in order to reveal the latent image — all in order to record a fleeting scene of royalty.’

In spite of his talent and the acclaim for his work, Le Gray managed to run up large debts. In 1860 he abandoned his family to sail around the Mediterranean on a photography project for the writer Alexandre Dumas. He settled permanently in Egypt, and died there some 20 years later in 1884.

‘It was a thrill to hold and study a print of such beauty, and in such perfect condition,’ Himes recalls. ‘We positioned it with the highest-ever estimate for a Le Gray print, at $300,000-$500,000. We wanted to let the market decide the value of this one. It was a successful strategy, with the print ultimately selling for $965,000 — a very healthy indicator of the strength of the growing photography market.’