The Story of Rolls-Royce’ Spirit of Ecstasy

Porsche owners are an eclectic bunch, with passions beyond the four walls of Stuttgart. I write for many clients outside of our shared fascination and some of my commissions involve interesting research. Here is the story of The Spirit of Ecstasy: the emblem which leads the way on every Rolls-Royce motor car. I wrote this for the Rolls-Royce centenary a few years ago.

Spirit of Ecstasy: Love beyond Limits

Born in 1866, John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu was of impeccable stock. His father was first Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, and his maternal grandfather was the second Baron Wharncliffe. After studying at Eton, then Oxford, engineering for the London and South Western Railway, and travelling the world with Lords Ancrum and Ennismore, Montagu became Member of Parliament for The New Forest in 1985.

Eleanor Velasco Thornton was born in Stockwell, South London, in 1880. Daughter of a Spanish mother and Australian engineer father, Eleanor left school at the age of 16. After working as an actress, and a life model at Chelsea School of Art, Eleanor got a job at the Automobile Club of Great Britain, working for Claude Johnson.

Often described as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce, Johnson was Secretary of the Automobile Club during the successful Thousand Mile Trial in 1900. Every prominent automotive enthusiast of the time took part in the race, including Montagu and Rolls, who went on to win the event, driving a Panhard.

In 1903, Johnson went into business with Rolls, and was instrumental in the 1904 agreement with Royce. By then, Eleanor had left Johnson’s employ and was working for a new magazine: ‘The Car Illustrated’, owned and edited by Montagu. Montagu was a married man, but destiny has no regard.

“I fell in love with her at first sight,” said Montagu. “But, as I couldn’t marry her, I felt I should keep away from her as much as I could. But she began to like me, and realise my feelings as well. Before long, we discovered we loved each other intensely, and our scruples vanished before our great love.”

As their love affair blossomed, so did business between Rolls and Royce. In July 1908, his lordship opened the Rolls-Royce factory, on Nightingale Road in Derby. Montagu’s speech paid ultimate tribute to his friends’ combined achievement, by announcing his purchase of a Silver Ghost.

Disaster struck in 1910, when keen aviator Charles Rolls became the first Briton to die in an air crash. Montagu was moved to immortalise his feelings for Eleanor in sculpture. The craftsman chosen was another great friend: Charles Robinson Sykes, resident artist on The Car Illustrated.

The few friends aware of Montagu’s taboo relationship knew that secrecy was key. With this in mind, Sykes created ‘The Whisper’: a bronze figurine modelled on Eleanor in flowing robes, with a finger to her lips. The Whisper became the mascot for Montagu’s Silver Ghost.

Now running the company following the loss of Charles Rolls, Claude Johnson was impressed by the statuette of his former secretary. In February 1911, Johnson commissioned Sykes to forge a similar mascot for Rolls-Royce. The Spirit of Ecstasy was born.

“A graceful little Goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight and alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce motor car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her flowing draperies,” is how Sykes described the finished work.

Royce was not a fan, considering the figurine to impair driver vision, and insisted it remain optional. Eventually, Sykes’ goddess became a standard fitting, adorning almost every Rolls-Royce since. Though the design has evolved over the years to suit differing vehicle styles, the Spirit of Ecstasy remains the most evocative and instantly recognisable of all motoring mascots.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Montagu was posted to India. After a return visit to England on army business, he joined the S. S Persia at Marseilles on Christmas Day, 1915. His secretary would accompany him as far as Egypt, to work on military reports.

In a letter to Montagu’s wife Lady Cecil, who was apparently aware and accepting of the relationship, Thorn wrote: ”I do not think for one moment that there will be any trouble in the Med but supposing…well then, the lord will have an extra chance, for there will be my place in the boat for him.” Off the coast of Crete, the vessel was torpedoed by a U-boat. As the ship imploded, Montagu lost hold of Eleanor, and she disappeared.

After thirty hours drifting at sea, Montagu was rescued by a passing ship. He arrived back in London to read his obituary, penned by his friend, Lord Northcliffe. Montagu later wrote to Northcliffe, expressing the devastating extent of his loss. “You will know, as a fellow human, what is my grief at the loss of Thorn, who, for fifteen years, was all in all to me and who was the most devoted and lovable woman God ever made.”

Despite remarrying after Lady Cecil’s death in 1919, and enjoying the birth of four more children (including the present Lord Montagu), Montagu was evermore in mourning, speaking variously of the sacrifice of women in wartime and a desire to validate his deliverance. A telling speech to the British Women’s Patriotic League in 1916 condemned the vilification of unwed mothers. As the saying goes, “the truth will out”.

In 1903, Eleanor had borne Montagu a daughter, Joan. Supported by a trust fund and raised by foster parents, Joan came to know the lord as her uncle. When the full story emerged after his lordship’s death, Joan was welcomed into the family by the third Lord Montagu. Her ashes are scattered on the family grave, in the grounds of the church that holds a plaque to her mother, placed there by the man who so adored her.

Many years later, Francis Bacon said: “the job of an artist is always to deepen the mystery.” With Spirit of Ecstasy, Charles Sykes did just that. It’s a remarkable story, and a remarkable centenary.

Photo by HombreDHolajata shared under Creative Commons

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