Three urns of this impressive size and form are published, one, from the Mottahedeh collection, by Howard & Ayers, op. cit., pp. 562-3, and earlier sold Christie's London, 3 March 1975, lot 159, later sold Sotheby's New York, 19 October 2000, lot 359. That example was the property of William Fitzhugh (b. 1757), supercargo at Canton 1776-91, and passed by descent through the family to Mr. T.V.H. Fitzhugh, who consigned it to the 1975 sale. The faceted octagonal shape of the urn's body comes straight from a Georgian silver teapot prototype, which would, of course have a flat bottom. Howard & Ayers suggest that the unusual gilt lion legs of the urn may have been inspired by the supporters in the coat-of-arms of the Honourable East India Company, as commissioned by Mr. Fitzhugh, a good Company man.
Another very similar example, with beribboned handles like the present lot, was in the collection of the Espirito Santo Foundation, Lisbon, and illustrated by M. Beurdeley, op. cit., cat. 66. A third, with clobbered decoration, was offered by Christie's London, 15 May 1995, lot 163.
While the exact origins of this very unusual design remain a mystery the four known urns are so unique in conception and so alike in execution to suggest that they may have been commissioned as a set of four. Whether standing individually or as a set they certainly must have made an impressive statement at late 18th century entertainments, where they could have been used to serve tea or the hot punches that were fashionable at the time.