Lionel Phillips (1924-91) was an Australian diplomat in China from during the mid 1940s to early 1950s. He was attached to the Australian Legation in Chungking (now Chongqing) from 1943, which later relocated to Nanking (now Nanjing) in 1946. Phillips moved to Beijing in 1949 and remained there until around 1952. During his time in China, Phillips became acquainted with various government officials and diplomats, including Zhou Enlai. The current lot was brought to back to Australia with him from China in 1952.
Tables of this minimalist form represent one of the most versatile and popular designs in Chinese furniture, as evident in their constant popularity through the generations. Historically referred to as ‘character one’ table (yi zi shou shi), as the single horizontal stroke of the Chinese character for the numeral ‘one’ bears resemblance to this linear form, this design appears to have derived from standard wood building construction in use since the Han dynasty. Their light and simple form meant they could be easily moved from one location to another, as revealed in Ming and Qing prints where they are depicted used as altar, painting and also side tables.
The piece is particularly attractive for its clever use of two different types of wood. The darker burls of the top create an attractive contrast to the honey-coloured huanghuali of the frame, legs, waist and spandrels. A common practice in the Ming and Qing dynasties, huanghuali tables of this form are known inset with table tops of various types of woods, such as one with an ebony top, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, Beijing, 2007, vol. 1, pl. 284; another with a huamu top, included in the exhibition Dreams of Chu Tan Chamber and the Romance with Huanghuali Wood: The Dr. S.Y. Yip Collection of Classical Chinese Furniture, Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1991, cat. no. 22, and sold in these rooms, 7th October 2015, lot 130; and a third, inlaid with spotted bamboo, sold at Christie’s New York, 26th March 2010, lot 1217.
Tables of this type were produced in varying sizes, the present example exemplifying a type of smaller dimensions, readily portable and extremely useful. A table of this design and similar size is illustrated in Wang Shixiang, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, Hong Kong, 1990, pl. B81; another from the collection of La Rue Robbins Lutkins was sold in our New York rooms, 20th March 2012, lot 123; and a third from the collection of Nicholas Grindley was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th November 2012, lot 2003.