Picture Credits: 
Eleanor Thornton poses with Spirit in 1915 months before her tragic death

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SPIRIT OF ECSTASY

Oindrila Gupta, January 27, 2023

Picture Credits: Eleanor Thornton poses with Spirit in 1915 months before her tragic death

“Strive for Perfection in Everything we do”

“Take the best that exists and make it better”

“When it does not exist, design it”

— Henry Royce

Some British cars are identified by their form, Mini and Land Rover come to mind, and one is uniquely and perennially associated with a certain fictional member of the British Secret Service, but no brand image rivals the exquisite and seductive elfin beauty who has guided Rolls Royce automobiles on their path since 1911.  Spirit of Ecstasy, also known as ‘The Flying Lady’ or ‘Eleanor’, looks as good today as she did over a century ago, and may be one of the best-known and admired works in the history of British sculpture.  Her life story is both elegant and enigmatic.

Charles Stewart Rolls could have stepped out of an episode of ‘Downton Abbey’. He grew up in the privileged Edwardian splendor afforded to members of British nobility, and met Henry Royce, a young ambitious engineer who had left school for the workplace at age nine and ‘pulled himself up by his bootstraps’, in Manchester, England in 1904.  The combination of superior wealth, connections, business vision, driving and engineering talent formed Rolls-Royce Motors two years later.  Charles Rolls led the way.  He personified the intrepid Englishman, held a land speed record by 1903 and was in first place or a pioneer in many aspects of the early age of speed, including the first pilot to make a non-stop double crossing of the English Channel by plane in 1910, and, later that year, the first Briton to perish in an aeronautical accident. 

The partners charged into the automobile industry as their ancestors had charged into foreign battles, with only a slightly better chance of survival. The union’s firstborn, nicknamed ‘Silver Ghost’ by an admiring public, was followed by the ‘Phantom’ in 1908, fulfilling the goal suggested by British magazine ‘Autocar’ to make the ‘best car in the world’.  

Cars were rare in 1908, and mascots even rarer.  Known in France as ‘bouchons de radiateur’ (radiator stoppers), early examples were sculptural, often modelled as gods and allegorical characters of the ancient world, or animals, typically those evoking speed and grace.  Exposed radiators fronting most early automobiles were commonly fitted with a pressure gauge or simple brass screw cap designed for secure fit and easy release, and adornment was a natural choice for the owner, continuing a tradition seen in maritime figureheads and Roman chariots before them.  

A British ‘motoring mascot’, or ‘bonnet ornament’ is distinct from an American ‘hood ornamentornament’, which appeared in the late 1930’s and is typically a larger, sleeker chrome element contoured to fit an aerodynamic front hood, concealing a radiator within.  Only a few marques retained the exterior radiator grill after the 1940’s, and it is tempting to believe Rolls-Royce’s decisionRolls-Royce decision to continue the tradition rested more on branding than engineering.  Today the iconic grill has lent its form to countless commemorative objects….my favorite being a silver-plated spirit decanter complete with mascot stopper.  

The true mascot is comparable to a gentleman’s tie…….it is the only part of the whole assembly with no practical function, worn prominently up front, represents the taste of the owner and can be changed with relative ease to suit an occasion.  Like ties, some mascots are pre-branded to announce a particular affiliation, and none is as ubiquitously recognized as Spirit of Ecstasy.  Her story is uniquely linked with Rolls-Royce, but she began as a flight of fancy for another member of British nobility, and patron of the fledgling partnership.  

John Walker Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu (1866-1929) was as grand as his name.  Conservative politician, member of the House of Lords, graduate of Eton and Oxford and Brigadier General during WWI providing aeronautical engineering advice to the Royal Flying Corps.  Like Charles Rolls, Lord Montagu was a pioneer, holding several trophies including the first to drive an automobile (a Daimler) into the House of Commons.  His first love was motoring, which he pursued daily by editing and publishing ‘The Car Illustrated: A Journal of Travel by Land, Sea and Air’, from 1902.  Car Illustrated steered a rapidly expanding community of British and International enthusiasts along the open road into the ‘Golden Age of Motoring’ and wider ‘Age of Speed’ in the inter-war years, with Spirit of Ecstasy setting the course and standard of elegance.  

‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ by French glassmaker Lalique made in limited edition in 1994 commemorating 90 years of Rolls-Royce. Height 8 inches (excluding metal base). Among the most valuable of all examples, this one sold at auction recently for over $18,000.

Based on period images Montagu’s taste in clothing was impeccable, so it is not surprising his choice of motoring mascot was too.  By 1909 Montagu’s Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost bonnet sported a tiny sprite, wrapped in a billowing shawl and posed on the radiator cap on one leg, leaning boldly into the oncoming future and provocatively holding a finger to her lips in a gesture of secrecy.  This rare model was known within a small circle at the time as ‘The Whisper’.  For the design Montagu turned to his friend, contemporary and confidante Charles Robinson Sykes (1875-1950), the British graphic designer, illustrator and sculptor. ‘The Whisper’ has become a figure of legend.  Motoring lore tells us Montagu’s secretary, muse and secret lover Eleanor Velasco Thornton was the robed figure allegorical of confidentiality, though her prominent position on the bonnet was far from discreet.  Eleanor, a working-class London girl, joined Car Illustrated in 1902 and became Montagu’s lover soon afterwards, bearing a daughter for him three years later at age twenty-five.  

‘The Whisper’ mascot in bronze, circa 1910 is widely considered the prototype for ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’

In 1911 Eleanor modelled again for Charles Sykes, shedding her discretion and embracing all that Rolls-Royce had become and continues to evoke.  Spirit of Ecstasy was an early corporate icon which rapidly supplanted the original ‘interlaced R’ badge still found on all ‘Rollers’ in brand recognition.  She was born in response to the popular pre-WWI trend of placing random ‘bonnet ornaments’ on British automobiles, some of which were considered inappropriate by Rolls-Royce (including ‘comical’ figures and…….figures representing secret lovers perhaps). The marketing genius behind this masterstroke of luxury branding was company Managing Director Claude Goodman Johnson, who was integral to Rolls-Royce success since the founding, and played a critical role after the premature death of Charles Rolls in 1910.  He aptly described himself as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce.  

Today’s collectors, known affectionately as ‘mascoteers’ consider a collection incomplete without at least one ‘Spirit’, and some collect only versions of the model, or other works by Sykes (including ‘The Whisper’ and the Bentley ‘Flying B’, which Sykes designed a version of for Rolls-Royce’s great rival in the 1930’s.  Unlike ‘SpiritSprit’, ‘Flying B’ has seen many modifications over a century, which Claude Johnson would certainly have never allowed.  In the Art Deco era  Sykes was commissioned again by Rolls-Royce to modify ‘Spirit’ for sleeker sports saloons, and to allow the driver a clearer forward vision.  The result was ‘Kneeling Lady’, introduced in 1934.  She received a lukewarm reception from many owners, and was replaced by a smaller version of the original ‘Standing Lady’ after WWII.  

Purist collectors search for early examples made for use, which often survived even if their hosts went to the scrap heap.  They can be found mostly in nickel with chrome finish.  Few were made in silver to discourage theft, but gold-plated versions were an upgrade option from the 1920’s.  Silver examples existexists as commemoratives, and Eleanor has been modelled in bronze, hardstone, plastic and glass, including a rarely found limited edition made by Lalique in the early 1990’s, which is among the most valuable of all examples in the modern marketplace.  

Though her spirit lives on, Eleanor died tragically at lunchtime on December 30th, 1915 together with 343 passengers and crew aboard SS Persia, the British cargo and passenger ship en route to India torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Crete.  She sank within ten minutes.  Lord Montagu was among 176 survivors, though many dignitaries and most of the crew onboard perished.  Eleanor’s sister Rose handled the estate, and London probate records from 1916 include a silver Spirit of Ecstasy statuette among her personal effects.    


Nick is a former Sotheby’s auctioneer and Senior Vice President at Heritage Auctions New York He is the author of four standard works on decorative arts, including ‘Bespoke Mascots’, with Michael Furman, (Coachbuilt Press, 2014).  Nick has been a faculty member of Parsons School of Design since 1985 and appeared as an expert appraiser on ‘Antiques Roadshow’ for PBS since the first series in 1996.  He is Chairman & CEO of the historic non-profit Salmagundi, New York’s oldest artist’s club, founded in 1871, and passionate about soccer.  

oindrila@litro.co.uk

oindrila@litro.co.uk

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