Artist / Designer William Spratling (American, 1900–1967)
Object Place: Taxco, Mexico
9.52 x 31.75 cm (3 3/4 x 12 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
The ladle has a hammered inner bowl and planished exterior and a single pouring spout. A thick rattail drop attaches the bowl to a wide handle ferrule with gadrooned decoration. The broad rosewood handle has a downturned oval tip.
The renaissance of Mexican silversmithing that began in the 1930s was due to the efforts of the multitalented American artist and writer William Spratling. An unlikely candidate for this role, Spratling had attended the Art Students league in New York in 1919; studied architecture at Auburn University; and taught architecture at Tulane University from 1922 to 1929. His academic path was soon overshadowed by the bohemian life he led in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he kept company with writers Sherwood Anderson and John Dos Passos. Accompanied by his erstwhile roommate William Faulkner, Spratling embarked on a freighter trip to Europe, and the two men collaborated on a humorous book. While in New Orleans, Spratling also wrote articles, sketched, and exhibited his work locally.
On his first visit to Mexico City, in the summer of 1926, Spratling met Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Through Rivera, he soon became acquainted with members of the city’s artistic, archeological, and literary community, many of whom believed that Mexico, then emerging from the revolution of 1910, was on the verge of intense social, political, and intellectual change. He met Dwight L. Morrow, the influential United States ambassador to Mexico from 1927 to 1930; art historian René d’Harnoncourt; and artists David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Miguel Covarrubias, among others. For the next two summers, Spratling returned to Mexico to teach Spanish colonial architecture, explore the countryside, and deepen his friendships with Mexicans and American émigrés.
By 1929 he left Tulane to settle in Taxco, a poor, mountainous Mexican town that had last seen activity as a mining center in the mid-eighteenth century. There he continued to write, sending a monthly column on local events to the New York Herald Tribune and publishing a book entitled Little Mexico to augment his lean income. A windfall came from Rivera, who, at Spratling’s suggestion, had been engaged by Morrow to paint a mural in Cuernavaca. This commission enabled Spratling to purchase a home in Taxco on Calle de las Delicias (Street of Delights). As he ranged about his adopted country, Spratling drew and collected ancient artifacts and folk materials in all media, with which he decorated his new home.
In Mexico, Spratling planned to support himself through writing, but soon he was in need of more substantive income. About 1933, encouraged by Morrow and inspired by the success of his friend Fred Davis, an American who operated a jewelry shop in Mexico City, Spratling established a workshop called the Taller de las Delicias (Atelier of Delights) down the street from his home. He began to create modernist designs for silver that were based on ancient and more recent folk materials of the region. His designs capitalized on the Mixtec and Zapotec jewelry that had caused a sensation in 1932, when they were discovered in a tomb at Monte Albán, galvanizing international interest in pre-Columbian metalwork.
Employing local craftsmen who, until that time, had worked in a Spanish-colonial idiom, Spratling was able to create arresting and affordable jewelry, flatware, and hollowware. He obtained locally available materials, such as mother-of-pearl, amethyst, onyx, jade, tortoiseshell, and rosewood, using them as colorful and exotic accents. His bold designs, a striking fusion of varied pre-Columbian and Art Deco styles, quickly found favor among American tourists. With the success of this venture, Spratling expanded his operation to include textiles, furniture, and tinwork. His participation in Contemporary Industrial and Handwrought Silver, an exhibition held by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1937, conferred special status on his activities and stimulated American luxury stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Gump’s, Neiman-Marcus, and Tiffany’s to feature silver made at the Taller de las Delicias. The town of Taxco prospered as Spratling’s success gained momentum. Widely copied in his own time, Spratling was the source of Mexico’s remarkable comeback in silversmithing that continues today.
These hefty serving pieces, typical of Mexican-made silver, display a bold form. The raised dots on the ferrule evoke the pictographic language of the Mayan world and appealed to a sophisticated modernist sensibility for powerful composition and simplicity of form. The maker’s marks incorporate the conjoined “WS” monogram that Spratling originally used as a brand on his horses.
This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.
“SPRATLING / MADE IN MEXICO” in raised sans-serif letters within a circle, with “WS” incuse monogram at center, struck on back. “SPRATLING SILVER” in raised sans-serif letters, within an ellipse, appears indistinctly, slightly overlapping first mark.
Purchased by Mymie Graham while living in Mexico City circa 1945; to the collection of the donors; given to Museum in 2000.
Gift of Betty Jane and Stephen Andrus in honor of Mymie Worrell Graham