Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884)
"L'escadre française en rade de Cherbourg", 5 August 1858
Albumen print from a collodion negative
30.1 x 38.3 cm mounted on 43.0 x 62.3 cm paper
Photographer's red signature stamp. Titled "L'escadre française en rade de Cherbourg" in pencil with photographer's oval blindstamp "PHOTOGRAPHIE / GUSTAVE LE GRAY & Cº / PARIS" on mount.
L’escadre française en rade de Cherbourg is a prime example of the seascape and naval views for which Gustave Le Gray was celebrated. Here he applied the many lessons he had learned in the making of seascapes since 1856. Without recourse to combination negatives that marked his practice in other examples of the genre, the present view was recorded in a single large glass negative. The photograph documents the official visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the port of Cherbourg and its newest construction, the “Bassin Napoléon III,” a remarkable product of naval engineering that greatly expanded the port facilities to accommodate France’s modern fleet of battleships. On the invitation of Napoleon III, between August 5 and 8, the royal couple and their retinue viewed from the safety of their steam-powered yachts (HMY Victoria and Albert I and II, visible in the second row from the right) a demonstration of France’s modern fleet in several maneuvers. This view was apparently taken on the day of the Queen’s arrival, when French ships greeted the royal couple in formation. What was intended as a gesture of trust between the two nations, however, was received by Queen Victoria as a disconcerting display of military might. The photograph records the readiness of the fleet, in a controlled cluster of ships led by the flagship Bretagne at far left. Upon closer inspection, the ships aren’t the only element in formation. Behind the royal yachts is a fast three-mast French vessel, the rigging for which is packed with dozens of sailors standing together in formation, as if preparing to cheer and wave their hats in the air on signal. The photograph is at once a document of the political spectacle of the modern military, and a photographic spectacle of impressive size and clarity of view.
The sight of agile sailors waving boisterously from the rigging of ships in the fleet was what the artist Jules-Achille Noël recorded in his painting commemorating the diplomatic meeting of August 5, 1858. See Jules-Achille Noël, Napoleon III Receiving Queen Victoria at Cherbourg, 5 August 1858, 1859. Oil on canvas, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (accession no. BHC0637).