Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie was the first French book to be illustrated entirely with photographs and was Blanquart-Évrard’s biggest commercial success. Its precedents were William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature in England and a few less significant brochures in France – the photographs that illustrate those publications have not survived as well as those in Du Camp’s volume, which retain magnificent contrast and detail to this day. Du Camp’s book was sold by subscription in 25 periodic deliveries, each containing 5 plates, tissue interleaves with letterpress plate number and description, and a wrapper with letterpress colophon and full plate list. The non-sequential handwritten numbering on each wrapper in the present lot is due to deliberate delivery of the plates out of order by the publisher, a common tactic to sustain the interest of the subscribers. The total number of complete sets distributed at the time of the volume’s publication is not known, but based on the sum of a payment made to Du Camp at the time, and the rarity of groups of any size today, it likely that no more than 200 copies were printed.
The present lot includes an impressive 66 of the 125 photographs, 52 of the delicate rarely preserved tissue interleaves, and 13 wrappers. It is interesting to note that the wrapper text here is in English and not in French, as is most commonly seen in surviving examples, and bears the name of London publishers E. Gambart & Co. These English wrappers from publishers E. Gambart & Co reveal that Du Camp’s volume was distributed outside of France, but the details of the contract between Gambart and the French publishers are not known. The English-text wrappers are scarce and only two sets could be found in institutional collections: the George Eastman House in Rochester has a set of 72 plates with English wrappers, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, has 32 plates with English wrappers. Most of the other known sets, while also rare, bear the French text. Large groups of photographs from Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie seldom appear at auction, and at the time of this writing it is thought to be that only one of those groups included the English text.
Du Camp’s volume was wildly popular in the 19th century – the French government alone subscribed to 20 copies – and it earned him the prestigious title of Officer of the Legion of Honor. In spite of its exceedingly positive reception, Du Camp never photographed again. When Du Camp and Flaubert arrived in Beirut at the end of their voyage, the former exchanged all of his photographic equipment for large quantities of fine wool and silk embroidered with gold so that the two friends could commission fine upholstered furniture when they returned home. Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie remains Du Camp’s first and last foray into photography.
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