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of cylindrical form, all supported on three gilt-decorated elephant-head feet, each with long curled tusks and bejewelled harnesses studded with hardstones, flanked at the sides by a pair of inverted U-shaped handles, decorated on the body in cloisonné with lotus blooms borne on meandering scrolls, rising to a slightly flaring border similarly decorated with florets, below a gilt-bronze foliate rim incised with a six-character reign mark, the fitted pierced cover with stylised kui dragons, surmounted by a reticulated gilt-bronze knop with a pair of ferocious dragons competing for a 'flaming pearl' above a ring of pendant lotus petals
This large and lavishly decorated censer is rare for its innovative form and represents the technical and artistic developments revived by the Kangxi emperor during the Qing dynasty. Vessels of this type, with a Kangxi reign mark and of the period, are unusual; see a related censer from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 78.
This censer reflects the Kangxi emperor's interest in both tradition and social, technological and cultural progress that fuelled a revitalisation of artistic practices that had lain dormant towards the end of the preceding Ming dynasty. The Kangxi emperor assumed an active patronage of the arts and crafts and the establishment of additional Imperial Palace Workshops (Zaobanchu) in the Forbidden City which formed part of the Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu) reflects his determination to be directly involved in their activities.
The form is a Kangxi innovation and is loosely based on the archaic bronze yan of the Western Zhou dynasty (c.1050-771BC). Although the tripod shape, deep body and upright handles follows from the ritual prototype to reflect the Kangxi emperor's keen appreciation of antiquity, the craftsmen have also addressed his interest in intellectual and technical challenges by endowing the piece with contemporaneity. These liberal changes are evident in the 'S'-shaped handles that rise up elegantly from the top of the body in place of the loop handles that rise from the rim, the charming combination of decorative bands, and the re-interpretation of the bulbous tripod legs into elephant heads. The elephant heads supporting the body and used as the feet of censers are reminiscent of Ming censers; for example see a censer attributed to the Jingtai period (r. 1450-56) included in Masterpieces of Chinese Enamel Ware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1971, pl. 3.
Censers of this type were revived during and beyond the Qianlong period; a similar pair with Qianlong reign marks and of the period, from the collection of Colonel J.B. Sherwood, was sold twice in our London rooms, 22nd June 1965, lot 273, and again, 12th March 1982, lot 195; and another pair, but of smaller size and decorated with geometric patterns, lotus scrolls and shou characters, was included in the exhibition Chinese Cloisonné. The Clague Collection, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, 1980, cat. no 75. Compare also censers of related form, but with elephant head handles and an elephant knop; for example the pair sold in our London rooms, 7th March 1980, lot 131; and another from the collections of Viscount Byung to Vimy, Thorpe le Soken, Essex and the Govenor General of Canada (1921-26), sold at Christie's New York, 8th December 1986, lot 345.
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