Art and ecstasy

Rolls-Royce and its iconic mascot have inspired creative minds for more than a century, a legacy that lives on to this day

In 1955, the artist Salvador Dalí got into his Rolls-Royce and set off from his home in Catalonia to drive to Paris, where he was due to deliver a lecture to 2,000  students at the Sorbonne. The title of his lecture was “Phenomenological Aspects of the Critical Paranoiac Method” and, for reasons best known to Mr Dalí, he saw it as crucial to fill his white Phantom II to the brim with 500kg of cauliflowers. “Everything departs from the rhinoceros horn!” he told his slightly baffled audience. “Everything departs from Jan Vermeer’s The Lacemaker! Everything ends up in the cauliflower!”

The surrealist artist had previous when it came to using vehicles as part of his art. In a 1938 show in Paris, Dalí had displayed the first of his “Rainy Taxi” installations, in which the outside of a car was dry but where a mannequin inside the vehicle was soaking wet and surrounded by snails. The last incarnation of Dalí’s taxi is currently on display at a museum in  St Petersburg, Florida, where a Rolls-Royce Sedanca 20/25, coachbuilt by Thrupp & Maberly, has been adapted so that there is a permanent shower inside the car.

Dali wouldn’t be the first, or the last, artist to own a Rolls-Royce or to incorporate the marque into his work. The French Dada-ist painter Francis Picabia owned several vintage models; the French Expressionist Bernard Buffett (the first “mega-artist”) was chauffeured around in a Phantom IV and painted dozens of 1930s models; and pop art icon Andy Warhol owned a brown Silver Shadow. The Swiss artist HR Giger used Rolls-Royce parts in one of his sculptures; and the controversial American artist Anthony James would turn up to exhibitions in his Corniche; while the provocative American photographer Tyler Shields once bought an old Rolls-Royce Silver shadow, drove it into the desert and blew it up, filming the action as the basis for an art installation.

Even more recently, in April 2017, the Caribbean-born American artist Bradley Theodore could be found live painting a Wraith outside London’s Maddox Gallery during the launch of his exhibition Second Coming.

Nowadays, Rolls-Royce is reciprocating the art world’s love of its cars by reaching out to numerous artists, inviting them to draw inspiration from its ethos and aesthetic. Since 2014, the marque’s art programme has realised commissions by the likes of Tomas Saráceno, Dan Holdsworth, Pipilotti Rist and Ugo Rondinone.

In 2019, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars unveiled the newest incarnation of its art programme, entitled Muse, at the Serpentine Gallery in London. This included two new initiatives: the biennial Dream Commission (which will support moving-image works created by emerging and mid-career artists), and the Spirit of Ecstasy Challenge. The latter sees creatives from various disciplines – including fine art, fashion and architecture – being invited to re-imagine the marque’s famous hood ornament.

In recent decades, the Spirit of Ecstasy has often been central to Rolls-Royce’s collaborations with visual artists. A 1994 series of glass Spirit of Ecstasy mascots, issued in a limited-edition of 200, was commissioned from the exclusive French glass-makers Lalique. The Spirit of Ecstasy Centenary Collection was launched in January 2011 and was limited to just 100 bespoke Phantom models, using different body colours, veneers, woods and interior details, with each featuring a specially commissioned Spirit of Ecstasy cast in solid silver. That same year, a diamond-enrobed centenary model of the figurine, cast by Mouawad Jewellers, was valued at $250,000, while the photographer Rankin marked the figurine’s centenary with a series of 100 images.

In 2018, Rolls-Royce collaborated with Fabergé to create a bespoke Fabergé Egg inspired by the Spirit of Ecstasy. It would be only the second “Imperial Class” Fabergé Egg to be made in a century, since the St Petersburg-based House Of Fabergé was forced to flee Russia after the October 1917 revolution. Rolls-Royce designers Stefan Monro and Alex Innes sketched a preliminary design, which was then rendered by Fabergé’s lead designer Liisa Talgren and created by craft master Paul Jones.

“It was born from an intrinsic desire to further the realms of bespoke personalisation,” says Rolls-Royce’s CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös. “Responding to the continuing demands of patrons in search of unique and cherished possessions, a designer at the House of Rolls-Royce sketched an egg, igniting a fascination that will undoubtedly become one of the most collectable items of modern times.”

The piece’s tiny Rolls-Royce mascot is sculpted in frosted rock crystal and cocooned within an egg that is 16cm high and weighs less than 400 grammes. It rests on an engine-turned, hand-engraved 18-karat gold bass. The shape is defined by arms of gold, which are opened via a discreet lever mechanism.

Rolls-Royce is not the only vehicle maker to collaborate with big-name artists. The marque’s parent company, BMW, has been running the BMW Art Car project since 1975, attracting the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, David Hockney, Alexander Calder, Jeff Koons and Olafur Eliasson to use its vehicles as giant canvases for their work. And another marque within the BMW Group, Mini, has launched its Mini Living Series, which engages with designers and architects.

Other car makers have been reaching out to creatives: Jaguar engages with architects; Lexus sponsors the Lexus Design Awards at Milan; and Porsche is working with young designers at the Royal College of Art.

But it is Rolls-Royce that has the most established ties to the world of fine arts. Ghost, Wraith and Cullinan, and the edgy Black Badge editions, appeal to a young, fashionable audience, and Rolls-Royce has been quick to make the most of each model’s artistic possibilities with its bespoke design options. “As patrons increasingly commission a Rolls-Royce for its aesthetic power,” says Torsten, “they trust in the knowledge that only the finest materials fashioned at the hands of a collective of skilled artisans will produce a motor car that transcends its primary role as a means of conveyance, to become a meaningful and substantive expression of art, design and engineering excellence.”

Rolls-Royce served as a benefactor to the Italian-Argentine artist Tomas Saráceno when he created an installation for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2018, and commissioned him to making another piece for the Rolls-Royce headquarters in Goodwood.

The following September, Turkish artist Refik Anadol was commissioned to make a unique piece based on the data regarding the colour of every Rolls-Royce vehicle produced over the previous decade. Entitled Art Of Perfection: Data Painting, the results were displayed on an LED “canvas” at the West Sussex factory. Other artists, including Yang Fudong and Asad Raza, have also worked on related projects, with the Spirit Of Ecstasy serving as a source of inspiration.

Rolls-Royce has also created The Gallery, a display space that runs the length of a car’s fascia, enabling the owner to “exhibit” their own specially commissioned artwork. “The programme adopts the form of contemporary patronage,” says Torsten, “enabling artists to bring new work to fruition. The Gallery is an innovation that furthers Rolls-Royce’s unparalleled Bespoke capabilities. Patrons are now invited to commission artworks for their own personal Gallery within Phantom, in essence, bringing art, within art.”

As part of The Gallery project, British artist Helen Amy Murray was commissioned to make a work that was inspired by the Spirit of Ecstasy – an unorthodox fabric sculpture that mirrored characteristics of the iconic statuette. Using sculpted silk appliqué, Helen created a mesmerising series of linear curves from which, on closer examination, a draped female form subtly appears – the wing of the Spirit of Ecstasy. The resulting piece was entitled “Whispered Muse”.

“I was inspired by the ethereal quality of the illustrations of the Spirit of Ecstasy by Charles Sykes,” says Helen. “They led me to incorporate the female form into my work; I wanted my gallery commission to look soft and organic. The subtle spacing of lines brings the draped figure into perspective.” Helen was assisted by Cherica Haye, Rolls-Royce Bespoke Colour and Trim Designer. “The Spirit of Ecstasy extends her graceful wing to enrapture her passengers and convey them to a serene sanctuary,” says Cherica, “where the whisper of flight imbues calmness and tranquillity in Helen Amy Murray’s Phantom Gallery. A true connection can be felt between Helen’s materials and the subject, enhancing the graceful ambience of the Phantom’s calm interior.”

A similarly tangential approach to the statuette was employed by the East London studio Based Upon, who created a conceptual art piece entitled “A Moment in Time”. A swath of silk was pulled through a tank of water, weighted and suspended, to isolate a split second. That moment was captured on camera, and the resulting fluid form was then analysed by Based Upon, in association with the Rolls-Royce design team, before being remastered in clay. It was then sculpted into wax before a final interpretation was machined from solid aluminium and polished to accentuate its fabric-like curvature. “We tried to capture a moment as though the Spirit of Ecstasy’s shawl was allowed to drape over the car at high speed,” says Based Upon’s co-founder Lex Welch, “capturing that moment that leaves time standing still, as the Spirit of Ecstasy trails all in her wake.”

One hundred and ten years after it was designed, the Spirit of Ecstasy still inspires – an artistic legacy that Rolls-Royce is actively supporting and sustaining.