New collector: Spratling silver
July 28, 2014 | The son of Dr. William P. Spratling, a celebrated neurologist and pioneer in treating epilepsy, William Spratling had a tragic childhood, losing his mother and a sister when he was ten, and his father five years later. He went on to Auburn University in Alabama, where he majored in architecture and was apparently teaching the subject there within two years of his arrival. At twenty-one he became an associate professor of architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans, and during the ensuing years he also wrote on architecture and related subjects for Scribner's Magazine, the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and other publications.
His personal charm, his intellectual abilities, and his writing (he was eventually the author of eight books including an autobiography) gained him entrée into literary circles, where he forged close friendships with such luminaries as Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner. Faulkner and Spratling lived together for some years, collaborating on the 1926 book Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles.
In a 1990 essay by Spratling's friend Barnaby Conrad, published in collector-dealer Sandraline Cederwall and Hal Riney's Spratling Silver, we learn that an invitation to lecture on colonial architecture at the National University of Mexico first brought Spratling to Mexico in 1926. After two more guest stints there he left Tulane and spent the next several years touring Mexico while writing his book Little Mexico, completing the manuscript in the mountainside village of Taxco, on the route between Mexico City and Acapulco. Taxco had been an ancient silver mining center exploited by the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores until better sources were discovered elsewhere. After a revival in the early eighteenth century, the mines closed again and the town slipped into impoverishment. But its picturesque location and its artistic heritage fired Spratling's imagination.
With the $2,000 commission he received for arranging for his good friend Diego Rivera to paint frescos in the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca, Spratling bought a house in Taxco, and from 1929 he concentrated on establishing the old mining town as a modern center of silversmithing. His silver and jewelry designs-featuring loops, disks, straps, balls, and rope themes-were inspired in part by indigenous Mexican and Aztec motifs. Other designs were ones he adapted from ranching life. Some of his designs combined silver with local hardstones like amethyst, jade, and onyx, but all of them emphasized silver's cool virginal beauty. Not a silversmith himself, Spratling persuaded a goldsmith and several silversmiths from nearby towns to work for him. He also engaged other craftsmen to realize his ideas in other metals, textiles, and furniture. A natural teacher, Spratling created an apprentice system in Taxco, attracting talented young Mexicans, several of whom became renowned silversmiths, notably Héctor Aguilar, Antonio Castillo, and Antonio Pineda.
Over the next sixteen years Taxco became an important tourist stop on the highway to Acapulco, and the enterprise thrived. When World War II cut off luxury imports from Europe, demand for Mexican luxury goods increased in the United States. To meet it, Spratling invited outside investors, who quickly took control of the company--Spratling y Artesanos--and eventually led to its bankruptcy in the mid-1940s. For several years thereafter Spratling turned his attention to Alaskan crafts, at the behest of the United States Department of the Interior agreeing to form an apprenticeship program to stimulate the kind of native-based production there that he had fostered in Mexico. His close study of Alaskan native motifs influenced his designs when he rebuilt his Mexican business in the late 1940s, grafting a modernist sensibility onto traditional ideas while maintaining the highest ideals of craftsmanship.
Spratling died on August 7, 1967, when, en route to Mexico City, his car crashed into a fallen tree. His funeral drew thousands to Taxco, where the American ambassador declared him "the best-known and probably the best-loved American in all Mexico."
Spratling saw silver with the eye of a humanist as well as an artist. "The true color of silver," he observed, "is white, the same color of extreme heat and extreme cold. It is also the same color as the first food received by an infant, and it is the color of light. Its very malleability is an invitation to work it. It lends itself to the forming of objects in planes and in three dimensions of great desirability, objects to be done by hand in precious metal."
Because pure silver is soft, it is usually alloyed with a measure of copper for durability. The sterling standard (.925) has been widely used in the Americas since the mid-nineteenth century. Though Spratling worked mainly in sterling he also designed objects in a much higher .980 standard-purer, softer, but also richer in its reflectivity.
The dramatic butterfly brooch in sterling silver and polished bronze in Figure 1 channels Spratling's archaeological inspiration through a modernist lens. "In pre-Columbian cultures, the butterfly symbolized the souls of women who died in childbirth or warriors who fell in battle," explains New York dealer Leah Gordon, in whose gallery this brooch shines.
Like many Spratling designs, this one, from the 1940s, is boldly sculptural. The edges of the hammered wings emphasize a leaf-like profile, the shimmering surface accented by the bronze and silver bosses suggesting natural wing markings. The butterfly's frond-like antennae (resembling those of a silk moth) form a lyre shape emphasized by the engraved S-curves delineating their component filaments. Spratling's restraint in this work yields the exceptional richness of its overall effect.
Equivalently simple is a parrot brooch, dating from the same period, inspired by another frequent motif in pre-Columbian art (Fig. 2). The bird's body is an oblong cabochon amethyst simply polished to make the most of its varied purple shades. The gemstone is set in a sculpted surround that boldly suggests the parrot's head, wings, and feathers, with a few engraved lines to indicate the beak, eye, and some markings.
A FAVORITE COMBINATION
According to Barnaby Conrad, Spratling declared his "conviction that certain materials have the right to be worked in a given community because they are native to that area and the work of the designer is to utilize these materials and to dignify them." In addition to its rich silver deposits, Mexico is rich in amethysts, a gemstone form of quartz whose color would price it beyond rubies were it not so abundant. It was not only in jewelry that Spratling combined the amethyst's regal purple with silver's moonlight. The rim of his commanding silver charger (Fig. 3)--almost a foot in diameter--is ornamented with three arching devices defined by incised loops and curves. Their stylized shape evokes looping motifs in ancient Mexican decoration while referring also to the geometric repetitions of art deco. Cabochon amethysts flank each of the devices, which are linked by an incised circle around the charger's inner rim. In contrast to the rim's linear textures, the unornamented bowl emphasizes the rippling sheen of its hand-hammered surface.
In addition to pairing silver with gemstones and hardstones, Spratling also combined it with various native woods. A case in point is the coffee service in Figure 4. In addition to contrasting strikingly with the gleaming metal, the rosewood handles provide insulation for pouring. The tray's rosewood insert unifies this theme while insulating the tabletop from the hot pot. The unadorned simplicity of the shapes allows full play to the reflective beauty of the polished hammered silver, whether by candlelight or subdued lamplight.
A related design is the silver and rosewood tea-strainer and drip-catching stand in Figure 5. Wrought of .980-standard silver, the strainer is ornamented with an incised geometric pattern, a theme carried out in the handles of the stand.
SILVER IN PRECIOUS SOLO
Silver's ductility allows it to be drawn into lengths of wire, both for jewelry and for other decorative uses. Dating from late in Spratling's life, the matching goblets in Figure 6 belong to a set of eight. Like so many of the designer's works, the rippling surface of the hammered bowls and spreading feet exploits their mirror-like luster, while the serpentine twist of the wires composing the stems creates a subtle three-dimensional spiral pattern. Two rings of silver beads divide the stems into beautifully proportioned lengths while adding physical stability to their structure. Spratling originally designed these elegant vessels for champagne, but they can also hold ice cream, sorbet, or even the driest martini.
The undulating hammered surface of the silver-handled teapot in Figure 7 emphasizes its shapely simplicity and vigor overall. Rising from the pot's tapered belly (itself the shape of Mexican clay vessels), the angle of the straight spout perfectly balances the curving sweep of the handle. Further details lend their own richness: an incised line just below the center of the simple ball finial; the elegant volute anchoring the handle's upper end--a nautilus or conch motif that Spratling used in various contexts.
Cederwall notes that this silver-handled teapot is "purportedly a rare, possibly unique all-silver prototype for Spratling's ‘Ovalado' tea set [which would feature wood handles in production]. Judging by the construction, it was made no later than 1940, and probably earlier."
Complementing his hollowware, two spoons (Fig. 8) attest to Spratling's flair for imaginative flatware designs. In the broad-handled example, the shovel shape seems inspired by ancient wood utensils. The wire-wrapped handle culminates in an incised double-loop device that echoes the incised loops in the charger discussed earlier, and suggests Aztec or Olmec inspiration.
In the long-handled spoon the perfect egg-shape concavity of the hammered bowl contrasts with the intricacy of the crossover pattern and piercing of the lower portion of the handle, the long taper of which evokes Brancusi's elegant bronze sculpture Bird in Space.
OF DATING, HALLMARKS, AND KNOCKOFFS
Spratling's silver falls into two general periods, the first, 1931 to 1945, the second, from after his bankruptcy--the late 1940s to 1967. Each period can be identified by the various hallmarks he devised, which are reproduced in the reference works cited below. You can also find a great deal of invaluable material at the website spratlingsilver.com, produced by the late scholar and collector Phyllis Goddard. New collectors should keep in mind that, unlike the price differentials between American colonial and Federal silver or George II and late George III silver, the spirit and value of Spratling's artistry is not dependent on dates, but on the shapes and designs of the works themselves.
Nevertheless, because unauthorized modern copies of Spratling designs abound, new collectors in the field must study the subject carefully. The best way to develop a good eye and feeling for authentic Spratling is to handle as many examples as possible. The best resources for this study are reliable dealers, who in addition to those featured in this column, include Douglas Rosin in Chicago, Lauren Stanley Silver in New York, and Carole A. Berk in Bethesda, Maryland.
INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE
Sandraline Cederwall and Hal Riney, Spratling Silver
Phyllis M. Goddard, Spratling Silver: A Field Guide/Recognizing a William Spratling Treasure
Billie Hougart, The Little Book of Mexican Silver Trade and Hallmarks (revised and expanded edition)
Joan Mark, The Silver Gringo: William Spratling and Taxco
Penny C. Morrill, William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance