The distinctive design, of Ibis birds drinking from an urn amidst tendrils, is carved from ivory, boxwood, ebony and abalone shell, and applied in relief to a figured sandalwood ground. This design is identical to that used on the front frieze of a music-seat from the celebrated suite of furniture designed by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) and executed by Johnstone, Norman & Co. for the American connoisseur Henry Gurdon Marquand (1819-1902). The frieze is clearly identifiable on the seat in a contemporary photograph of the music salon at Marquand's Madison Avenue mansion.
The present panel is most likely a 'mock-up' or sample for the frieze on the pair of music-seats, which themselves formed part of an extraordinary twenty-nine piece furniture commission - the centrepiece of which was a highly important concert piano which sold at Christie's, London, 7 November 1997, lot 86 (£716,500), now in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts. The suite was originally dispersed at auction at the American Art Association on 31 January 1903, and the music-seats bearing this design next appeared at auction in 1927, listed as 'Two tabourets [...]. Deep box seats with frieze in red cedar carved with scrollings and inlaid in ivory with ebony affrontés bird figures' (American Art Association, New York, October 15 1927, lot 742C). A settee from the suite is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, each hold an armchair from the suite. Further pieces have subsequently appeared at auction (see Sotheby's, London, 2 October 1998, lot 340 and Philips, London, 16 May 2000, lot 290).
Marquand, a creator and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, granted Alma-Tadema a limitless budget to decorate his music salon. The Dutch born Alma-Tadema arrived in London in 1870 and soon established himself as one of its most fashionable artists. A classicist and student of ancient architecture he was acclaimed for the luxuriant detail he devoted to depicting scenes of classical life. Extending this knowledge to interior decoration Alma-Tadema fused Grecian and Roman elements rendering a unique 'Pompeian' style for Marquand's music salon. This panel stylistically embodies this classical inspiration: the ebony imitates Grecian 'bronze' black and the frame of palms and Roman acanthus relates to Arcadian Pan's sacred reeds. Further homage is apparent in the use of the lotus-flowered urn, which recalls the fountain attribute of Venus, and the iridescent abalone inlay, which evokes Venus's sacred pearly shell. Particularly relevant is the use of the Ibis bird which was sacred to the Greek deity Hermes the inventor of the Grecian lyre and thus, appropriately for a music room, brings to mind the musical tradition of Grecian lyric poetry.