This rare form of altar vase, known as benbaping in Chinese, was made to contain Sacred Plants for rituals associated with Lamaist Buddhism, and is related to ewers used to contain Sacred Water for ritual washing. The ewers share with the vases the same globular body and drum-like upper section, but with the addition of a spout emanating from a dragons's mouth. An example of this type of ewer is illustrated by R. Kerr in Chinese Ceramics - Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, Victoria and Albert Museum Far Eastern Series, London, 1986, p. 115, no. 101. The form of the current vase is even more closely related to the gold Bum-pa urn which contained the ivory plaques used to confirm the identity of boys who were the reincarnated Grand Lamas (see Treasures from Snow Mountains - Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, 2001, p. 50, no. 4).
The current examples are especially rare for the combination of blue and white and famille rose enamel decoration, and for their marks, which are written in underglaze blue instead of the more common iron red. It appears that no identical examples with this particular decoration have been published. A vase of this type with moulded vertical lobing on the neck and decorated in various motifs, including the Eight Buddhist Treasures, in gold, is in the Palace Museum Beijing, and was exhibited in The Life of Emperor Qianlong, The Macao Museum of Art, 2002, no. 103. A Qianlong altar vase of this type in the Shanghai Museum, decorated with colourful banding around the neck similar to that on the current vessel, is illustrated by Qian Zhenzong in Qingdai ciqi shangjian, Shanghai kexue yishu chubanshe, Shanghai, 1994, p. 119, no. 148. Although the published vase has a pale green ground and a different choice of scrolls, the same spotted treatment - reminiscent of a lotus pod - and gold edging has been applied to the mouth. Another porcelain altar vessel of this form, bearing a gold Qianlong mark and made to resemble inlaid pewter, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Rose Kerr, Chinese Ceramics - Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, op. cit., p. 85, pl. 59).
The colourful banding seen on the neck of the current vases and the green ground example in the Shanghai Museum has been painted to resemble the multi-coloured silk banners, often hung in cylindrical form, in Buddhist temples. Examples can be seen in the Hall of Long Life of the Potala illustrated in The Potala, Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, Beijing, 1995, p. 52, no. 11.
This vase form was apparently much admired by Albert Morrison, since other vessels of this type bearing different enamelled designs were sold from his collection in these Rooms on the 18th October 1971 (lots 71, 72, 73). The form continued in popularity at the court of Qianlong's successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, as can be seen from the Jiaqing marked yellow-ground example published in Late Chinese Imperial Porcelain, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, (no date), p. 14, no. 10; and one that will be offered as lot 186 in these Rooms as part of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale on the same day.