Memorabilia: Rolls-Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy

FMM Assistant Curator Cheslynne Ruiters takes a look at the stories behind some of items in FMM’s collection of memorabilia and artefacts. This month he really gets into the spirit of theme…

If necessity is the mother of invention, then design is undoubtedly its grandchild. The analogy is particularly apt when applied to the evolution of automobile mascots, and one of the motoring world’s most famous ornaments is Rolls-Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy. This wonderful figurine was modelled after a young woman who had bewitching beauty, intellect and ‘esprit’. The model was Eleanor Velasco Thornton, whose relationship with politician John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, remained a secret for over a decade, principally because both of these lovers acted with the utmost discretion. John was also a pioneer of the automobile in England and from 1902 he was the editor of The Car, and Eleanor served as the secretary. Friends of the pair knew of their close relationship but they were sufficiently understanding as to overlook it.

A member of this circle was the sculptor Charles S Sykes. When Lord Montagu ordered the creation of a special mascot for his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the sculptor chose Eleanor as the model for his figurine. The statue depicted a young woman in fluttering robes having placed one forefinger to her lips, which led to it being christened ‘The Whisper’.

The very first Rolls-Royce motor cars did not feature radiator mascots, they simply carried the R-R emblem. By 1910 personal mascots had become the fashion of the day and the company noted other owners of its cars following the new vogue, but doing so with questionable style by choosing mundane or even risqué and vulgar subjects. Claude Johnson, managing director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, was asked to commission a dignified and graceful mascot for the company’s models. He turned to Sykes to produce a mascot that would adorn all future Rolls-Royce cars and become generic to the marque, with the specifications that it should convey “the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely speed with silence”. In February 1911 he presented the Spirit of Ecstasy, which was easily recognisable as being a variation of The Whisper. The similarity was hardly coincidental because the model for both had been Miss Thornton.

From 1911 to 1914 the Spirit of Ecstasy was silver-plated and thus many thought it a massive piece of precious metal. In smaller versions, and now made from highly polished nickel alloy, this radiator decoration has stood its ground on every Rolls-Royce, including those in the present range. The kneeling version remained after WWII for the new Silver Wraith and Silver Dawn.

Sadly though, Eleanor was never to appreciate her part in the success of the Spirit of Ecstasy. She lost her life when, on 30 December 1915 while on passage to India on board the SS Persia, the ship was torpedoed off Crete by a German submarine. She had been accompanying Lord Montagu, who had been directed to take over a command in India. He was thought to have been killed too, but survived and was rescued a few days later by another ship. However, Eleanor’s elegance lives on…