Incense burners in the form of peacocks are very rare; compare with two examples, the first from Mrs L. E. Redding, sold at Sotheby's London, 14 December 1971; and another was sold at Sotheby's London, 21 May 1963, lot 102. Smaller bird-form censers of simpler design are known: one in the shape of a dove, included in the Phoenix Art Museum exhibition Chinese Cloisonne, The Clague Collection, illustrated in the Catalogue, pl. 61; and a crane, ibid., pl. 62; a different pair of doves and a pair of quails, illustrated by H. Brinker and A. Lutz, Chinese Cloisonne: The Pierre Uldry Collection, Zurich, 1989, pls. 324 and 328 respectively.
Compare the fine sculptural form to similar but limited number of metalworks of the Qianlong period. Cf. the gilt-copper crane modelled supporting on its back a pavilion-shaped musical clock, included in the exhibition, Moments of Eternity, Timepieces Collection from the Palace Museum, Macau Museum of Art, 2004, and illustrated in the Catalogue, p. 111, no. 27. Although in gilt-copper, the stance of the bird with its spiraling neck turned towards it back, and the detailing of the feathers compare closely with the present peacocks.
Peacocks are considered auspicious birds and it is known that such birds were kept by Emperor Qianlong in the Yuanmingyuan. A large hanging scroll entitled: Qianlong guan kong que kai ping, 'Emperor Qianlong watching the Peacock in its pride', dated to the cyclical wuyin year (1758) depicts a scene of the seated Emperor observing peacocks in the gardens of the Yuanmingyuan [fig. 1], cf. Qingdai Gongting Huihua, 'Paintings of the Court Artists of the Qing Court', The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 194-195. The inscription on the painting recorded by the Emperor noted that peacocks were sent as tributary gifts from foreign dignitaries. The Emperor further noted on the painting that when at leisure he took pleasure in watching these curious birds sway their bodies around palace grounds; he admired their beautiful feathers and after five years of nurture, the birds had learned to fan their tails.