This censer is striking for its large size, imposing mask-form feet and unusual geometric design of chilong. By drawing from the past and combining it with modern designs with technical mastery, the result is an arresting statement of the power and grandeur of the Qianlong era. The form derives from an ancient ritual bronze prototype, ding, of the Eastern Zhou period. A heightened sense of dynamism is achieved through the elongated handles that extend dramatically in an S-curve from the globular body, a feature that first appeared in the Song dynasty. The curves of the form and fierce masks that form the legs provide an attractive contrast with the straight lines and sharp angles of the design.
Censers such as the present example comprised part of a five-piece altar garniture and would have created an impressive scene during ritual ceremonies, thus emphasizing the importance and solemnity of such events. These garnitures were produced for specific temples in the Imperial Palace and were generally commissioned as tribute to the emperor. In addition to the censer, a complete set would comprise two pear-shaped vases derived from archaic hu vases, and two candlesticks. A pair of vases decorated with the same designs of geometric scrolls and ruyi bands at the base of the neck and foot respectively, flanked with dragon scroll handles, was offered at Christie’s New York, 17th September 2008, lot 601; and another single vase was offered in our London rooms, 9th November 2016, lot 138. Compare also another Qianlong mark and period censer of related form, but supported on lion-mask feet and cast with bands of geometric scrolls, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3rd June 2015, lot 3118.
Qianlong mark and period censers of this type are known cast with dragons; see two illustrated in situ in a shrine in the Hall of the Imperial Ancestral Temple and Hall of Ancestral Worship, published in Wan Yi, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, New York, 1988, pls 473 and 474; and another sold at Christie’s New York, 16th September 2016, lot 1227.
Complete garniture sets include a much larger set decorated with dragons, illustrated in Qingdai gongting shenghuo, Hong Kong, 1985, p. 299, pl. 467, in situ in the Xianruo Temple, located in the garden of Cining Gong (Palace of Compassion and Tranquility) where the empress and consorts conducted Buddhist religious ceremonies; another sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2826; and a set in the Robert H. Clague collection, now in the Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, included in the museum's exhibition China’s Renaissance in Bronze, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, 1994, cat. no. 38.
Ritual vessels of this type were also decorated with phoenix instead of dragons, indicating that they may have been commissioned as a tribute to the Qianlong emperor’s mother. See a bronze altar vase, from the Alfred Morrison collection, sold at Christie’s London, 9th November 2004, lot 17; and another pair of imperial bronze vessels cast with dragons and phoenix made for one of the buildings in the Yuanmingyuan (Imperial Summer Palace), sold three times in our Hong Kong rooms and most recently 9th October 2007, lot 1322.