The shape of this censer is clearly based upon ancient bronze vessels. The blade-shaped legs, loop handles and flanges, along with the motifs of kui dragons below the rim and wide spreading taotie masks, all have their prototypes in Zhou dynasty bronzes, many of which are illustrated in Xiqing gujian, Xiqing Mirror of Antiquities, the catalogues of ancient bronzes in the Qing Court Collection compiled under the authorization of the Qianlong emperor in 1755.
Curiously there are no archaistic references on the cover and the legs. They are both decorated with the 17th/18th century motifs of the Buddhist lions and the floral scrolls. The phoenix and the dragon are also later references and of imperial significance.
Compare a similar example from the Clague Collection, illustrated by C. Brown, Chinese Cloisonne - The Clague Collection, Phoenix Art Museum, 1980, pp. 84-85, pl. 34. The author of the book comments this kind of juxtaposition of archaic and contemporary motifs shows that the craftsman felt free to improvise in the decoration of parts which did not exist in the late Shang dynasty original. These additions prevent the work from becoming "a lifeless copy of the antique model", ibid., p. 84.
The present lot is a very rare large example which includes the reign mark, indicating its importance to the Qianlong Emperor who particularly favoured this fangding design, known as the 'Wenwang ding', the ding of the Zhou dynasty King Wen. According to Qing court archives, the Qianlong Emperor issued edicts during the 3rd, 15th, 40th and 43rd year of his reign, for the production of the Wenwang ding in cloisonne enamel. In addition to these, a number of similar pieces were tributed by the local officials.
A smaller example (40 cm. high) with a cast four-character mark was included in the exhibition Die Ware aus dem Teufelsland, Museum fur Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt, 1981, Catalogue, p. 148, cat. no. 79. Another smaller vessel (33.8 cm. high) bearing an enamelled six-character mark is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, pl. 59.