This pair of magnificent cloisonné braziers represents the apogée of artistic and technical achievement of the imperial enamel craftsmen of the Qianlong reign. Every aspect of their design and execution has been accomplished to the highest standard. This can be seen by looking at the quality of the casting of the elephant-head feet, and from the crisply cast, multi-layered complexity of the clouds in the pierced sections. It can also be seen even more clearly by examining the cloisonné enamel sections. Firstly, the wire used to form the cloisons is very thin and extremely precisely laid out. The upper surface of the flange, for example, has a finely drawn, small-scale lattice, which is punctuated by almost painterly bird-on-branch vignettes, alternating with angular archaistic scrolls passing through depictions of ancient jade bi. The archaistic scrolls have tiny additional hooks and volutes in slender wire recalling the form of the design in its original jade or lacquer. The use of color changes in the enamel on the floral and bird elements is sophisticated and delicately done. Indeed, every aspect of the braziers is a credit to the craftsmen in the Imperial workshops where they were produced.
These censers were decorative art objects of the highest quality, but they were made to be used. The most convenient form of heating in the Imperial palaces was braziers. Beijing gets very cold in winter and the limited under-floor heating, few stoves and heated kang were not sufficient to keep the inhabitants of the Forbidden City even moderately warm. The halls of the Inner Court therefore had additional heating in the form of charcoal-burning braziers. These braziers ranged from magnificent multi-tiered cloisonné enamel vessels standing on three elephant heads, like the current example, to simple cages the size of a water melon. Heating in the Palace was supposed to commence on 'Stove Lighting Day' - the first day of the eleventh lunar month, and each person in the Imperial Household was allowed a certain amount of fuel depending on their rank. In the Qianlong reign, for example, the empress and the dowager empress were allowed 55 kg., imperial concubines of the first rank were allowed 45 kg., while grandsons of the emperor were allowed 5 kg.
A smaller cloisonné and gilt brazier with elephant-head feet which still stands by the nuptial bed in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility in the Beijing Palace is illustrated in La Cité Interdit: Vie Publique et Privée des Empereurs de Chine (1644 - 1911), 1996, p. 12, fig. 10. A pair of large elephant-head braziers, with similar tiers to the current examples, but of octagonal form rather than circular, can be seen standing on either side of the emperor's steps up to the throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City in Splendors of China's Forbidden City - The Glorious Reign of the Emperor Qianlong, Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, p. 47, pl. 32. Large braziers of almost identical design to the current vessels, but with less elaborate finials, still stand on either side of the Ancestral Altar in the Palace of Tranquility in Shenyang as seen in Imperial Life in the Qing Dynasty: Treasures from the Shenyang Palace Museum, China, Empress Place Museum, Singapore, 1989, p. 38, top left illustration.
The tradition of using three elephant heads as the feet of imperial bronze censers and braziers at the Beijing Palace can be traced back at least as far as the Xuande reign (AD 1426 - 35). An example of a censer, bearing a six-character Xuande reign mark, on which the elephants balance on their rolled trunks, as on the current censers, is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and illustrated in A Special Exhibition of Incense Burners and Perfumers Throughout the Dynasties, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1994, p. 199, no. 54. A much smaller (H: 27.8 cm.) cloisonné censer standing on three elephant's heads from the Ming dynasty Jingtai reign (AD 1450 - 56) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Enamel Ware in the National Palace Museum, Japan, 1971, no. 3. And cloisonné censers on three gilded elephant heads that still stand at the foot of the steps leading up to the imperial throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Beijing Palace are illustrated ibid.., La Cité Interdite, p. 9, fig. 6.