The superb thick lacquer layer assembled for this table from numerous individual coatings was only rarely recreated in later periods. The soft, well-polished finish and the smooth, rounded outlines of the various motifs are also characteristic of the wares created at that time; the exuberance and complexity of the present design, however, are exceptional. The creation of a piece of this scale and quality would have been a highly ambitious undertaking, given the time-consuming process of building up a thick enough layer of lacquer by adding and preparing multiple thin coatings, each of which needs to dry before it can be polished and the next one applied, and finally carving the design into it – a process that can stretch over years.
The meticulous design of phoenixes on the current tray is very closely related to that found on arguably the greatest extant piece of early Ming lacquer - the Xuande mark and period table in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in Ming: Fifty Years That Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, pp. 106-7, fig. 97 (fig. 1). The precision and carving of the design on the upper surface of the table of a dragon and phoenix soaring amidst a dense ground of lotuses and foliage amidst quatrefoil panels precisely matches that of the phoenixes on the current table, enabling a precise dating of it to the Xuande period. The stylistic elements are so similar – the precise treatment of the feathers, wings and tails of the phoenix, and the depiction of phoenix in reserve on the four corners – that it is likely to have been carved by the same team of artisans. The identical design can also be seen on a Xuande mark and period lacquer tray formerly in the collections of Sir Percival David, Mrs Walter Sedgwick and Edward T. Chow, sold in these rooms, 3rd October 2018, lot 3402, from the Speelman collection (fig. 2).
The phoenix design can also be found on a Xuande period cloisonné basin in the Uldry collection, illustrated in Helmut Brinker and Albert Lutz, Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection, London, 1989 (German edition, Zurich, 1985), pl. 19, where the authors argue that the birds are differentiated by the treatment of the long tail feathers to distinguish between the male and female bird. They also illustrate, ibid., fig. 55, a stone relief from the ruins of the Mongol capital Dadu, dated to the second half of the 13th century. Carved with two phoenix within a quatrefoil, each with a different long tail plume, the decoration is remarkably similar to both the cloisonné basin and the current lacquer tray. Clearly this imperial Yuan decorative motif was a prototype for the design used in Xuande imperial works of art.
The phoenix emblem was also a regularly used design motif on the highest quality blue and white porcelain produced at the Imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in the Xuande period. For a Xuande reign-marked brushwasher painted with two phoenix from the Qing court collection, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 129.
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