TAXCO, MEXICO — Deep in the mountains, a small town sparkles with stalls filled with silver jewelry and furnishings. Many are shaped like indigenous animals, or bear traces of Aztec mythology, but these designs originated more than 2,000 miles away in an Auburn architecture classroom. They are the legacy of William Spratling ’62 sewn into the cultural fabric of his adopted county. “Everything is connected with Spratling,” said Dr. Taylor Littleton ’51, Mosley professor of science and humanities emeritus and author of “William Spratling: His Life and Art,” the definitive Spratling biography. “His whole life flowed into everything that he designed.”
Over two years of research, Littleton retraced Spratling’s footsteps from his childhood to his eventual sojourn to Mexico, unearthing hundreds of never-before-seen personal letters to create a portrait of the fascinating, intensely driven icon of the mid-20th century.
Born Sept. 22, 1900, Spratling was raised an orphan on his father’s ancestral Gold Hill, Ala. plantation only miles from Auburn. Art-related jobs around town, like calligraphing gothic letters on A.P.I. diplomas, paid the rent at his cousin Leila Terrell’s boarding house throughout his school years.
In 1918, Spratling’s life found direction in his freshman-year architecture classes under head professor Frederic Biggin. Recognizing his potential, Biggin assigned him after-hours drawing work, and later hired him as an assistant instructor his sophomore year. In money trouble throughout his life, he left Auburn in 1921 — without graduating — for a job teaching architecture at Tulane University. Spratling joined a circle of authors, artists and academics based in the French Quarter, including his roommate, a then-unpublished William Faulkner. Under N.C. Curtis, architect of Comer Hall in Auburn, Spratling was part of a society which campaigned to preserve New Orleans’ historic landmarks. A gifted writer as well as illustrator, he freelanced magazine articles on the city’s plantation homes and wrought-iron embellishments to support himself.
Restless and drawn to Mexico’s rich history of colonial and indigenous architecture, Spratling’s lucrative magazine work enabled him to travel deep across the border, eventually moving there permanently in 1929. His friendship with artists like Diego Rivera broadened his cultural understanding, while his abilities as a pre-Columbian artifacts dealer enabled him to further explore the rugged, unmapped regions of southern Mexico. He began designing furniture, jewelry and homewares based on the indigenous motifs he uncovered.
Later, using the abundant silver native to Taxco, Spratling’s work was recognized throughout Mexico for its originality and superior quality. The financial stability enabled his archeological expeditions described in his books “Little Mexico” and “More Human Than Divine.” Spratling explored parts of the Sierra Nevada, uncovering lost temples and unearthing the cultures of Mexico’s antiquity. As business grew, the locals he trained achieved their own recognition and opened their own shops. The city of Taxco thrived.
“Spratling, as an entrepreneur, was a brilliant success,” said Littleton. “These young boys became artisans under the master, rejuvenating a community and an economy, all because of one man.” By 1940 Spratling was an international celebrity, designing one-of-a-kind pieces for influential figures like Haile Selassie, Georgia O’Keefe and Errol Flynn. World War II drove up demand for Spratling silver and outside investors were brought in to facilitate the rapid expansion. At its peak, Spratling y Arteseños employed hundreds of workers, but the loss of control and creative freedom was too much for Spratling.
In 1945, as business receded, he dissolved the company and moved just outside Taxco, donating much of his pre-Columbian antiques to museums throughout Mexico and living in semi-seclusion. Today, the company Sucesores de William Spratling produces silver items inspired by his original designs.
In 1962, at the urging of various alumni and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wrote that Spratling “played a direct role in furthering relations between the two countries,” he was invited back to Auburn to receive an honorary Doctorate of Architecture.
After almost forty years away, Spratling wrote to a friend of his excitement to come home. “I cannot deny that an honorary degree to be conferred by Auburn would be a sort of vindication of my life objectives, and a deep satisfaction to me after all these years.”
Just five years later, in 1967, Spratling died in a car crash on his way into Taxco. Following his death, Littleton led a drive to purchase a permanent collection of Spratling Silver for Auburn’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. Praise came from around the world for Spratling’s artistic vision, but only in his absence was the impact of his trans-cultural vision truly felt.
Chocolate Set and Serving Tray, sterling silver and rosewood | Gift of James M. Hunnicutt to the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art | Photo courtesy of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art
Reneè d’Harnoncourt, director of the Museum of Modern Art and longtime friend, praised the ‘climate of understanding’ Spratling built that contributed to the acceptance of Mexican art: “I know of no one person who has so deeply influenced the artistic orientation of a country not his own.”