Color of Silver: William Spratling, His Life and Art, The
Rogers, William Warren
TAYLOR D. LITTLETON. The Color of Silver. William Spratling, His Life and Art. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. 322 pages. $34.95.
Dr. Littleton’s deeply researched and elegantly written biography of Alabama’s William Spratling is a needed addition to the state’s and the nation’s intellectual, architectural, and artistic history. By the end of the 1930s Spratling’s designs in silver, wood, tin, and other native Mexican materials became what Professor Littleton describes as “the foremost influence on an entire generation of Mexican and American silversmiths.” He resurrected in Taxco, Mexico, a moribund art form that, together with his entrepreneurial genius, have “been no less pervasive in their esthetic influence than in their permanent effect on the economic life of Mexico” (p. 2). Spratling was, as well, a leading collector in Mexico of pre-Columbian art, a teacher, artist, astute critic, essayist, architect, intellectual, world traveler, and a free spirit who numbered among his personal friends such leading artists of the Mexican renaissance as Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, and David Siqueiros. Before that, in the 1920s he left Alabama Polytechnic Institute (present day Auburn University, but then, as now, always known as Auburn) to teach at Tulane University, write books and essays, and become a leading participant in the bohemian life of the Vieux Carre in New Orleans. He developed friendships with artists and writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Hart Crane. He and the young William Faulkner were roommates for a time, and in 1926 they collaborated on a book entitled Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans.
Ironically, Spratling, so Southern and, later, so simpatico with Mexican culture, was born in Sonyea, New York, where his father, a medical doctor, was superintendent of a state institution for treatment of epilepsy. There were a number of physicians among William’s uncles and cousins. Besides William, his parents had two girls older than he and a son two years his junior. Spratling’s mother died in 1910, and his father suffered a debilitating illness that forced him to move to the home of his own father in Alabama. Soon, the Spratling children became wards of their paternal grandfather, and the children were raised on the family plantation, Roamer’s Roost, near Gold Hill and Auburn. Seeking better health, William’s father moved to Florida, where he died in a hunting accident in 1915. Their grandfather’s property was willed to them, and for a while the children lived with other relatives. William resided for a short time in New York City, where he attended the Art Students League. Family health problems caused his return to East Alabama. His youth was one of dislocations, but, as with many other Southerners, the family ties were strong, and they influenced him for the rest of his life.
The author pieces together the early periods of Spratling’s life from various sources, but especially from the artist’s autobiography, File on Spratling, published in 1967. Yet, Dr. Littleton is so knowledgeable of his subject’s life that he is able to expand the autobiography and point out (gently) where Spratling is deliberately vague or fails to clarify salient parts of his life. In any event, Spratling’s student days at Auburn, where he developed as a draftsman, sculptor, architect, and teacher are sensitively handled, as are the other parts of his life. As a young man and later, the sophisticated Spratling had a talent for forming permanent friendships with artistic people and with wealthy people who appreciated creativity and were willing to underwrite it. The young man absorbed the Creole, Anglo-Saxon, and West Indian cultures in New Orleans. Nathaniel C. Curtis of Tulane was his mentor, and he was close friends with two archaeologists. Between 1922 and 1928, when he resigned his teaching position, Spratling worked parttime with an architectural firm. His apartment was owned by Natalie Scott, who became a major influence on his career, and they collaborated in the mid-1920s on Old Plantation Houses in Louisiana. The brilliant Elizabeth Anderson was another friend, and the two women both later went to Mexico, where their relationship with Spratling became stronger. During his time in New Orleans, Spratling toured Mexico, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Egypt, always broadening his knowledge and appreciation of art, its meaning, and its challenges.
Spratling migrated to Mexico because of his fascination with the land and its people, finally settling in the old silver mining town of Taxco. He became a part of the country’s intellectual life and began to participate in the revival of interest in Spanish Mexico and the pre-Colombian periods. He and others appreciated the genius of the native Mexicans, especially their decorative art that survived and was mixed with Spanish influences, as well as with those of modem Mexico. Spratling wrote for local newspapers and journals and for such American publications as Architectural Digest. His friendship with Frans Bloom, an architectural scholar, led to teaching assignments at the National University of Mexico at Mexico City. Spratling made an enduring contribution with his book Little Mexico, an insightful narrative history of Mexico’s Indians and their varied lifestyles as depicted in native arts and crafts (Mayan, Aztec, Navajo, Hopi).
In the late 1920s, Spratling became acquainted through Diego Rivera with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow and his wife, Elizabeth, who were art patrons and great lovers of Mexico. This acquaintance developed into a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. The Morrows’ financial aid enabled Spratling to build a home and establish himself as a businessman in Taxco. In turn, Spratling helped them furnish their home and became their artistic adviser as well as their personal friend. Spratling continued to contribute to Mexican and American publications, especially the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1933 Spratling opened his first silver shop, “Taller de Las Delicias” (The Delights), in Taxco. Soon it became a thriving business and revived the silver jewelry industry in Mexico, the United States, and internationally. During this time Spratling met Peggy Cowley, who had come to Mexico to get a divorce. They became close friends. At the same time she began an affair with Hart Crane, even though he was homosexual. Crane left for the United States only to commit suicide on the way back, and Spratling and Peggy, who had no sexual relationship, formed a close union that endured. The author notes that Spratling himself had homosexual tendencies. The firm of Spratling Y Artemasos began small, using Mexican craftsmen trained by Spratling who, according to the author, “combined the discipline of his architectural pencil with his rich impression of Mexican history and artistic motifs” (241). Spratling and his associates produced furniture, textiles, and silver jewelry that were universal in their appeal and striking in their authentic creations and recreations of Mexican genius. Worldwide orders poured in from many people, including such personages as the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Spratling remained an artist but also became an astute businessman and gained international fame. His scholarship and his architectural training were significant in helping him to produce ornamental and utilitarian tableware and serving pieces of silver that were combined with rosewood, ebony, and semi-precious stones. “Perhaps the most original accomplishment of his art,” Professor Littleton believes, “was to produce designs with an unmistakably Indian feeling but whose origins are subsumed in the whole history of Mexico’s iconography” (254). By the end of 1937, the work of Las Delicias was truly professional.
During the 1940s business boomed for Spratling, but ultimately, he was much more of an artist than a businessman. Poor management, combined with unscrupulous associates, brought his business down. He continued on a small scale and even made a new beginning that centered on Alaskan native art. He came closest to getting married as a result of his relationship with an old acquaintance, Mary Anita Loos (niece of Anita Loos). Despite their deep attachment, Spratling would not take the final step, although love is not too strong a word to use in describing their feelings for each other. By the 1960s Spratling had become an icon. He was celebrated and praised, his Little Mexico was reprinted. Even so, many of his longtime friends died, and he began drinking too much as his own skills declined. Still, his contributions were lasting, and, fittingly, after a long absence from Alabama, he returned to Auburn University in 1962 to receive an honorary doctorate. One of the final acts of his life was putting together his autobiography, File on Spratling. He continued to live in Mexico. Early in the morning on Monday, August 7, 1967, Spratling was killed in an automobile accident en route from his hacienda to Mexico City. His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners.
Professor Littleton has fashioned a fascinating and objective biography. It is carefully researched, full of detail and insight, and written with an unfailing eye and ear for the sights and sounds of the South, New Orleans, and Mexico. His book is worthy of its subject and will be a rewarding read for both scholars and lay readers.
William Warren Rogers is an emeritus professor of History at Florida State University
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Winter 2001
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