MARK AND PERIOD OF YONGZHENG
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the globular vessel raised on stout detachable tripod legs and set with a pair of detachable upward curving pierced S-shaped handles flanking the short cylindrical neck, mounted with gilt-copper borders overall, brightly enamelled in a 'famille-rose' palette on a vivid turquoise-blue ground with a formal lotus scroll, bearing five large multi-petalled predominently pink blooms separated by pairs of smaller flowerheads on curling leaf stems, the cabriole legs each with matching decoration centred by a large yellow flower flanked by similar green and purple flowers, the large-scale mark inscribed in four large characters in blue enamel on the base within a double square, the elaborately pierced and repoussé gilt-copper cover with an overall lotus scroll enclosed in three ruyi-shaped panels separated by groups of wufu bats amid reticulated clouds, all surmounted by a Buddhist lion
Emperor Yongzheng's Magnificent Beijing Enamel Censer
The present impressive large censer represents the apogee and ultimate technical achievement of imperial enamel craftsmanship during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1722-1735). It is a masterpiece that is closely related to a censer of similar large dimensions painted with the design of stylized flower scroll against a yellow-ground, now in the Confucius Museum in Qufu, Shandong province, illustrated in Zhongguo jin yin boli falangqi quanji, vol. 5, Shijiazhuang, 2002, pl. 223. The censer is part of a five-piece altar garniture with the pair of candlesticks and vases also included ibid., pl. 222 (fig. 1).
To produce a ware of this imposing large size with enamelled decoration of such high quality required the knowledge and skills of artists who could be found in only one place – the Enamel Workshop located within the Forbidden City in the capital. Their talent is clearly shown in the fluid and fine painting of the decoration and in their ability to produce such a large vessel. The pierced cover surmounted by a lively Buddhist lion serving as a knop is also crisply cast and gilded, suggesting an imperial provenance.
This censer was most likely a centrepiece for a five-piece altar set, flanked by a pair of candlesticks and two vases. Two massive Yongzheng candlesticks (fig. 2) with the same decoration as the present censer, also from the British Rail Pension Fund and sold in these rooms, 16th May 1989, lot 93, may have been part of the same altar garniture, while a large enamelled altar vase, sold in our New York rooms, 23rd May 1974, lot 160 and again in these rooms, 29th November, 1978, lot 432, and illustrated in Hugh Moss, By Imperial Command, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 20 (fig. 3) is most probably one of the two vases that completes the altar garniture. Moss attributes the vase to the Palace Workshop and further notes ibid., p. 47, that enamel ware from the reign of Yongzheng is scarce, and that two innovations appeared during his reign, 'the use of wrought and gilded metal detail (as seen on the handle, covers and finials) and the sectional manufacture of items to overcome the limitations of size' imposed by small kilns in the Palace precincts. Both of these features are seen on this censer, the altar vase and the pair of candlesticks.
The production of enamelled ware was of great importance to Yongzheng who inherited his father's, the Kangxi emperor, interest and love for these highly decorative and imposing wares. It was during Kangxi's reign that the Manufacturing Bureau was established in Wuyin Dian under the auspices of the Imperial Household Department to produce enamelled porcelain wares used within the Palace. By 1718, Kangxi increased the number of workers and clerks employed by the Bureau and merged the various departments producing cloisonné, champlevé, enamelled metal and porcelain wares into one, forming an enlarged and extended Imperial Workshop. It was a natural move to merge all the departments under one supervision as undecorated metal pieces needed for the cloisonné craft were readily available, along with artists trained to the highest level in the technique and skills of enamelling as well as kilns for the firing of both metal and porcelain wares. The foundations established by Kangxi were built upon by his son, Yongzheng, during whose time the technique of enamelling was gradually perfected, allowing much finer detail in design, extending the range of the decorative subject matter and increasing the variety of shapes produced. Together with these developments came the challenge to make faultless vessels of extremely large size and as Moss suggests with the introduction of sectional production the 'size' problem was gradually solved.
This censer is of ding form, based on the shape of archaic ritual vessels of the Shang dynasty. Its cauldron-like shape, standing on three short and slightly curved legs, reflects the predilection in the Ming and Qing times for vessels in the form of archaic bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Although the overall outlines of the archaic models were retained, the decoration is part of the imperial craftsmen's creative interpretation of Ming and Qing designs. For another Yongzheng period enamelled censer see one painted with the design of lotuses in panels, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Zhongguo jin yin boli falangqi quanji, vol. 6, Shijiazhuang, 2002, pl. 233.
Massive enamelled censers are better known from the Qianlong period; for example see a large rectangular censer painted with a dense flower scroll design on a yellow-ground in situ on an altar in the Hall of Buddhism (Fanzonglou), a temple building erected in 1768 in the grounds of the Forbidden City, illustrated in Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism Collected in the Qing Palace, Hong Kong, 1992, pl. 100; and a Qianlong mark and period massive imperial tribute enamel yellow-ground censer of ding form first sold in our London rooms, 7th December 1993, lot 58, and again in these rooms, 30th October 2002, lot 224. See also a five-piece painted enamel altar set of much smaller dimensions and attributed to the Qianlong period, from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 225.
The cover of this censer served as a blueprint for covers produced during Qianlong's reign; for example, see a cloisonné enamel censer with a pierced domed cover finely cast in gilt-bronze sold in our New York rooms, 20th March 2007, lot 553; and a pair of censers with similar ornate covers, one sold in our London rooms, 29th October 1982, lot 20, and its pair sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th May 2008, lot 1542.
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