There are very few more prominent and well-known symbols of luxury, class and elegance in the world than the Spirit of Ecstasy — the ornament sculpture famously mounted upon the bonnets of Rolls-Royce cars. Less well-known is the fact that the Spirit of Ecstasy itself originated from a highly secret love affair between a prominent aristocrat and his personal secretary.
The Spirit of Ecstasy’s association with Rolls-Royce dates back to 1909, when a tailor-made sculpture was commissioned by the British politician and automobile enthusiast John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, as a personalized mascot for his own Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Lord Montagu was not only the first person to drive a motor car into the yard of the Houses of Parliament, but is also credited with introducing King Edward VII to motoring. He now sought out the skill of his friend and sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes for the purpose of designing this ornament sculpture. Sykes designed a figurine of a woman standing on one foot, gown flowing behind her, and holding one finger to her lips as if keeping a secret. This was purposefully symbolic, as the model Sykes used for the figure was a lady by the name of Eleanor Velasco Thornton, who had not only become the secretary to Lord Montagu in 1905, but with whom he also had a secret love affair at the time. Although Lord Montagu had been married to Lady Cecil Kerr since 1889, he had fallen in love with Eleanor by 1900. According to Lord Montagu himself, it was truly love at first sight. Their secret affair resulted in the birth of a daughter, Joan, whom Eleanor gave up for adoption. For more than a decade, knowledge of the affair was limited to only a handful of close friends.
Sykes was one of those close friends, whom Lord Montagu would often take along with him and Eleanor on a drive in his Rolls-Royce. He consequently designed a figurine of Eleanor in fluttering robes with one finger against her lips, symbolizing the secret of her relationship with Lord Montagu. The figurine was appropriately named “The Whisper.” Significantly, Lord Montagu’s tailor-made mascot for his Rolls-Royce unexpectedly initiated a trend, with others imitating the gesture — each creating their own personal ornaments for their vehicles. This caused some concern for the Rolls-Royce company, as they became concerned that some of the ornaments might not be appropriate fits for their cars. Therefore, the managing director of Rolls-Royce cars at the time, Claude Johnson, took it upon himself to see to the creation of a standardized trademark ornament which was to be placed upon all Rolls-Royce bonnets. He was close friends with Lord Montagu who encouraged him to turn to Sykes who had so elegantly designed The Whisper. Johnson approached Sykes with the request to design something which would represent the spirit of Rolls-Royce, which he described in his own words as “speed with silence, the absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy, and a beautiful living organism of superb grace.”
Johnson himself had in mind something along the lines of the famous Hellenistic sculpture known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which has been on display at the Louvre since 1884. The sculpture is of Nike, the goddess of strength, speed and victory, which Johnson deemed most appropriate for the Rolls-Royce brand. Sykes, however, disagreed and opted for something more feminine, once again using Eleanor Thornton as his model. He replaced the original voluptuous cloth billowing out behind her with wings, and just like the Winged Victory she would be facing the wind conveying a sense of forward movement and triumph. Sykes called his figurine “The Spirit of Speed,” and Johnson would go on to describe it as that of a goddess “expressing her keen enjoyment, with her arms outstretched and her sight fixed upon the distance.” Henry Royce himself, one of the founders of the company, wasn’t impressed at all. He did not believe that the mascot enhanced the car and expressed concern that it might impede upon the driver’s view. Despite his reservations, Sykes presented the Spirit of Ecstasy to Rolls-Royce in February 1911. Providentially, Royce was absent due to illness at the time. Sykes described his figurine as “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 fluttering draperies.” It was henceforth known as “The Spirit of Ecstasy,” although those in the know secretly called it “Miss Thornton in her nightie.” It was accepted by Rolls-Royce and initially offered as an optional feature — a concession made to Henry Royce — but it became standard fitting in the early 1920s. Originally silver-plated, it was already changed to nickel or chrome alloy by 1914 to dissuade theft.
During the 1930s, Rolls-Royce requested Sykes to design a lower kneeling version of the mascot to allow for a clearer view of the road. Even the updated kneeling version was undeniably a reflection of Eleanor Thornton and has remained the trademark ornament on Rolls-Royce bonnets ever since. Until 1951, every single Spirit of Ecstasy contained Charles Sykes’ signature as an inscription along with the sculpture.
And so, from a secretive affair, a most unpredictable piece of history was born. By 1915 Lord Montagu’s wife not only knew about the affair but actually condoned it, and together they decided that Eleanor would accompany Lord Montagu on a trip to India. The trip proved fatal, however, as Eleanor drowned after their ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Coast of Crete. Lord Montagu himself was initially thought to have died as well, but was eventually rescued at sea a couple of days later. He had spent days searching for Eleanor, and although he never saw her again, their love had by now been immortalized in the most unlikely of places.
When Lord Montagu passed away in 1929 at the age of 62, his will made provision for Joan, his daughter from the affair, but deliberately obscured who she was. Curiously, while Eleanor had never made any attempt to reach out to her daughter, Lord Montagu had met up with her on occasion. She had actually attended Lord Montagu’s funeral, but so discreetly that no one even knew she was there. The family searched for her for years and when they eventually tracked her down, she had already been married a surgeon commander in the Royal Navy and had two sons, one of whom, incidentally, worked for Rolls-Royce.
Today, Spirit of Ecstasy figurines are purposefully digitally sculpted so as to resemble Eleanor Thornton and are hand-cast using precision casting. The mascot nowadays either come out in stainless-steel, 24-carat gold, illuminated frosted crystal or matte black and can be studded with diamonds. Currently the most expensive hood ornament in the world, it is protected from being stolen by an anti-theft mechanism which deploy upon impact, immediately detracting it back into the radiator shell.
Of the original Whisper which served as the inspiration for the Spirit of Ecstasy, only three sculptures were ever made. Two are believed to have survived, one of which is currently still on display at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu along with other Spirit of Ecstasy figurines. The museum itself was founded in 1952 by Lord Montagu’s successor and son from a second marriage, as a tribute to his father, whose love to Eleanor Thornton is the reason the world has been blessed with this magnificent symbol of luxury.