A RARE CLOISONNE ENAMEL AND GILT-BRONZE TRIPOD ELEPHANT CENSER QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD
This lavishly decorated impressive censer represents the high level of artistic and technical achievement of enamel craftsmanship during the Qianlong period. Every aspect of the design has been carefully planned and executed to the highest standard. The quality of the workmanship suggests that the censer was either made in the Cloisonné Enamel Workshop within the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshop) located in the Forbidden City or was a tributary item made for the emperor in Guangzhou. All important craftsmen working in this medium in the Palace Workshop were artisans recruited from Guangzhou. Hence, both the development and improvement of the standard of the Cloisonné Enamel Workshop was entirely dependent on the Guangdong enamel factories.
The Qianlong emperor was a keen collector of objects that were modelled after relics from antiquity. The present censer takes its form from archaic ritual bronze ding vessels of the Shang and Zhou periods. Although the overall outline of this piece follows the archaic models, the Qing craftsmen added their own design elements and made liberal changes to the prototype, thus creating pieces that were contemporary and unique. For example, the elephant head handles seen on this censer have stylishly replaced the usual flaring rectangular loop handles. Elephant heads supporting the body and used as the feet on censers is reminiscent of Ming dynasty censers; for example see a censer attributed to Jingtai's reign, illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Enamel Ware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1971, pl. 3, with a domed openwork cover that may have also inspired the design of the present cover.
Although no other censer of this form and decoration appears to be published, the present censer is closely related to a censer supported on three jewelled gilt-bronze elephant heads, and the domed cover decorated with three barbed cloisonné panels filled with flowers and reserved on a gilt-bronze cloud band and fret ground, from the Kitson collection, included in R. Soame Jenyns and William Watson, Chinese Art. The Minor Arts, London, 1963, p. 212, pl. 99, where it is mentioned that the censer is a fine example of an ornate piece of cloisonné made for the Qing court. See another related censer with similar elephant head handles and feet and a recumbent elephant on the cover supporting a vase, included in the exhibition Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1987, cat.no. 34. Similar openwork can be found on the cover of a large censer with carp-form handles, in the Phoenix Art Museum, illustrated in Chinese Cloisonné. The Clague Collection, Phoenix, 1980, pl.43.
Censers of this type were made for altar sets placed in the Buddhist temples and palaces in the Forbidden City. See a five piece altar set in situ in the Qianqing Gong (Mansion of Heavenly Purity) illustrated in Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, Splendours of China's Forbidden City, Chicago, 2004, fig. 32.