insight - Spirit of Ecstasy

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On April 29, Prince William will marry Catherine Middleton: the culmination of a love story transcending class divides. As this triumph of true love over protocol is celebrated, spare a thought for another class-crossing romance that this year celebrates its 100th anniversary – one that ended rather differently.

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, working at engineering for the London and South Western Railway, and travelling the world with Lords Ancram and Ennismore, Montagu became Member of Parliament for New Forest in 1989.

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 (nude) 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’ (his biography, by Wilton J. Oldham, was also titled thus), Johnson was secretary of the Automobile Club – then still in its infancy – during the successful Thousand Mile Trial in 1900. Every prominent automotive enthusiast of the time took part in the trial, including Montagu and aristocrat Charles Stewart Rolls, who went on to win the event, driving a Panhard.

In 1903 Johnson joined Rolls – who was an importer of French motor cars – as his business manager, and in 1904 was instrumental in sealing the momentous deal with mechanic Frederick Henry Royce, which spawned the iconic Rolls-Royce marque. By then, Eleanor had left Johnson’s employment and was working for a new motoring magazine, The Car Illustrated, owned and edited by Montagu. Although Montagu was a married man, destiny dictated otherwise.

“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 new Rolls-Royce factory, on Nightingale Road in Derby. Montagu’s speech paid the ultimate tribute to his friends’ combined achievement, by announcing his purchase of a Silver Ghost.

Disaster struck in 1910, when keen aviator and pioneer balloonist Charles Rolls died in a flying accident, becoming the first person in Britain to be killed in an air crash. Meanwhile, 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 late 1910 Johnson commissioned Sykes to create a similar mascot for Rolls-Royce. And thus was The Spirit of Ecstasy born, transferred to Rolls-Royce on February 6, 1911.

“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 an impairment to driver vision, and insisted that it remain an optional extra on his cars. Eventually, Sykes’ goddess did become a standard fitting, to counter some Rolls-Royce owners’ predilections for decorating the radiators of their prestigious motor cars with vulgar mascots depicting frogs, caricatures of policemen, golliwogs, and other atrocities.

Since then, ‘The Flying Lady’ – as the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot is also sometimes known – has adorned almost every Rolls-Royce to emerge from factories in Derby, Crewe, Goodwood, and even – between 1921 and 1931 – Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. Though the design has evolved over the years to suit differing vehicle styles (there have been kneeling and the more common standing versions), the Spirit of Ecstasy remains the most evocative and instantly recognisable of all motoring mascots and probably the earliest in continuous use.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Montagu was posted to India. After a return visit to England on army business, he joined the SS Persia at Marseilles on Christmas Day, 1915. His secretary Eleanor 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, Thornton 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 (submarine). As the ship sank, Montagu lost hold of Eleanor, and she disappeared.

After 30 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 fathering four more children (including the present Lord Montagu), Lord 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, artist 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.

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