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The Dawn of an icon

Charles Sykes is renowned for creating the Spirit of Ecstasy, but the artist’s affinity with the automobile pre-dates his famous mascot, as Jeff Booker explains

Rolls-Royce enthusiasts will know that the first Spirit of Ecstasy was designed by the sculptor and artist Charles Sykes in 1911. However, the story of this iconic statuette goes back several years before that, and has it roots in Sykes’s pioneering work on John Scott-Montagu’s automobile publication The Car Illustrated, often referred to simply as The Car, which was first published in 1902.

Subtitled “A Journal of Travel by Land, Sea and Air”, The Car Illustrated was not the world’s first automobile magazine – The Autocar was launched in 1895, as was an American magazine called The Horseless Age (later renamed The Automobile and then Automotive Industries Magazine). But it was the first publication that emphasised the car as the ultimate status symbol, something that was helped by the prominence of its founder and editor, Scott-Montagu, a baron and parliamentarian who had been educated at Eton and Oxford.

The magazine was launched on 28 May 1902 with an advertisement in the Times newspaper, proclaiming: “The New Illustrated Journal of Automobilism and Travel in all its Forms. No.1 now ready! Price Sixpence Weekly.” The big scoop in the first edition was a photograph of King Edward VII sitting in John Scott-Montagu’s Daimler and about to go for a ride, driven by Scott-Montagu himself. It was not Edward’s first drive in a motor car – this had taken place in 1897 when he was the Prince of Wales – but it does show the level of access to the rich and powerful that the magazine had. The moment was also reproduced as an A4-sized supplement print for framing, showing the King on his own in the car.

“The Car is not a technical paper,” continues the advert in the Times, “but a bright, gossipy weekly, containing all the latest Automobile chat, American and Continental Notes, a series on Routes and Roads and contributions by leading specialists on Motoring, Railways, Yachting, Motor Boats, Aerial Progress, Submarines and Locomotion generally.” The aeroplane had yet to be invented, but the magazine was already writing about air balloons and other early forms of aviation.

This was a promising start for a new weekly car magazine, but there was still a missing ingredient. There was no artwork in the early editions, only text and photographs. Fortunately, a young artist from the North East called Charles Sykes was looking for his first job and was introduced to Montagu by the celebrated journalist Comyns Beaumont. Sykes was offered the position in March 1903, starting at £80 per year.

Charles Robinson Sykes was born in 1875 in the village of Brotton, near Middlesbrough. After attending Rutherford Art College in Newcastle upon Tyne, he won a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Art in 1898, studying under the likes of Walter Crane and Arthur Thomson, and being introduced to sculpture. His parents, along with his teachers at Rutherford, had hoped that he would return to his native North East to train the region’s up-and-coming craftsmen, but Sykes seems to have developed a taste for London life.

He joined the magazine, whose offices were located in Piccadilly Mansions, 17 Shaftesbury Avenue, on the corner of Sherwood Street, in 1903. That same year, Sykes painted a picture from the office window, which overlooked Piccadilly Circus, showing Eros surrounded by horse-drawn vehicles and a small number of cars. From Piccadilly Mansions, the magazine moved offices to 168 Piccadilly, facing Bond Street, in 1906, and in 1912 it relocated again, this time to 62 Pall Mall, a town house opposite Marlborough Gate, where it remained until 1916. Fittingly, this is just down the road from the famous RAC Club headquarters at 89 Pall Mall.

One of Sykes’s first jobs in 1903 was to produce a new trophy for the Gordon Bennett Cup race series – one of the first ever prizes for motor racing. It was named after James Gordon Bennett Jr, the Scottish-born son of the owner of the New York Herald Tribune. Something of a playboy in his younger years, he set up the Paris edition of his father’s paper in 1880, which was initially called the Paris Herald Tribune (it would be renamed the International Herald Tribune in 1967), and promoted it through various sporting events, including balloon races, French soccer tournaments and the first polo and tennis matches to be held in the United States.

In 1900, he sponsored the Gordon Bennett Cup – the first international motoring competition and the first race to be held on a closed circuit rather than on open roads. He sponsored six races in total: the first three and the last (in 1905) were held in France; the fourth was in Ireland in 1903 and the fifth was in Germany. However, the French team did not like the rules under which Bennett’s race was run and in 1906 decided to pull out of the competition and form their own race series called the Grand Prix, the forerunner of Formula One racing.

In addition to an award for the top individual driver, John Scott-Montagu decided that the race needed a suitable team prize, and so for the 1903 race he commissioned Sykes to create a large silver and bronze trophy – the Montagu Trophy – as well as awarding a prize of 200 guineas to the team with the highest aggregate score. The new trophy – a magnificent piece standing around 20 inches tall, which shows a naked female figure holding aloft a winged car – was unveiled in Montagu’s new publication, called The Car Magazine, in its August 1903 edition.

“Our frontispiece is a photograph of two positions of the Montagu Trophy which is offered as a Team Prize in connection with the Gordon Bennett Race every year,” wrote Montagu in that month’s editorial. “It was won this year by the French team, of which all three cars finished the race. The trophy is the work of Mr Charles R Sykes, a young sculptor who has thought out and produced a design which, we think, will be agreed to be full of interest and artistic merit. It represents the figure of Speed standing on the pinnacle of Fame holding aloft a winged racing car. The rock and the figure are worked in silver, and the body of the racing car in bronze, with silver wings and wheels. The base also is of bronze, and on this there is a representation in relief of racing cars from England, France, Germany, and America.”

The model for the Montagu Trophy was believed to be Eleanor Thornton, John Scott-Montagu’s secretary and mistress, and she would continue to model for dozens more of Sykes’s paintings and sculptures over the next decade.

The Car Magazine was a distinct publication from The Car Illustrated. Where The Car Illustrated was a weekly publication, costing sixpence, The Car Magazine was a monthly magazine, with a full-colour cover, featuring longer articles. The two publications ran concurrently for several years. “The publication of a new magazine when there are so many in the market may seem to require some apology,” wrote Montagu. “I think, however, that in view of the rapid increase of interest in the automobile movement – an increase which has had no parallel, so far as I am aware – a monthly magazine devoted in the main to automobilism will be acceptable. When I published the first number of The Car Illustrated, I was told by some that such a venture could not possibly be a success. The results, however, have fully justified its publication, and the Cassandras have changed their tune. But I have found that there are many subjects which cannot be fully treated in a paper which must deal chiefly with current news and has no room for long and weighty articles. Again, England is the only country in which automobilism is matter of importance where no monthly publication is issued dealing with the subject. I therefore think that I am justified in putting before the public this magazine.”

The Car Magazine sold for one shilling. With disappointing circulation figures and feedback from readers telling him that it was too expensive, Montagu reduced the price to sixpence from the August 1903 edition. This had long-term effects on the publication’s profitability and by the time it was wound up in 1906, it had accumulated losses of £6,000 – nearly three-quarters of a million in today’s money. However, The Car Illustrated continued publication for another decade, and would start to adopt some of the visual features that had been pioneered by The Car Magazine, including illustrated covers, along with Sykes’s illustrations, sketches, cartoons and section headings. Sykes was soon in demand for motoring book illustrations, advertisements and cartoons. He designed his first cover for The Car Illustrated in Christmas 1904 and continued intermittently for the Christmas issues up to 1915. But it was the Christmas issue covers that Sykes designed between 1905 and 1907 that shed light on the thinking that led to the Spirit of Ecstasy.

The Christmas issue of 1905 featured a winged vehicle, entitled “The Coming of the Car”. This was sculpted and made into a plaster cast, ready for a bronze to be made. However, to save time and cost, Sykes merely painted the plaster with verdigris-coloured paints to make it look like a bronze. This was then placed in a sign-written frame with the magazine name and details, and was photographed to be used as the front cover image. In 2010, the plaster image, which had hung on Lord Montagu’s office wall for over a century, was taken down and a mould taken. This was made into a bronze by Professor Ken Brittan for Lord Edward Montagu and is displayed in the hallway at Palace House in Beaulieu to this day.

The Christmas 1906 cover of the magazine was more significant still. Reminiscent of “The Winged Victory of Samothrace”, an ancient Greek sculpture of Nike that is displayed in the Louvre, it featured “The Spirit of Speed”, in which a winged woman alights on a car. The 1907 Christmas edition of The Car, published on Sykes’s birthday, 18 December, featured “Towards the Dawn”, which depicted a winged woman standing on the back of a speeding motorcar and pointing ahead towards the new day.

As well as automobiles, Sykes also started to make artworks and sculptures of a brand-new form of transport: the aeroplane. This would have been big news in 1909 when European aviators finally caught up with the achievements of the Wright brothers in the United States. Louis Blériot successfully crossed the Channel on 25 July that year, crash-landing near Dover. Sykes was hugely influenced by this new winged world and painted Blériot in his own aeroplane crossing the Thames at night – a wholly imagined scene but it was the evocative 1909 Christmas cover for The Car Illustrated and was called “The Coming of the Aeroplane”.

The following year’s festive cover was “The Spirit of Flight”, which depicted a high-flying aeroplane with a column of light containing cherubs rising up to meet it. Later, in 1913, the Christmas edition of The Car Illustrated was to have an unusual cover called “The Vision”, which depicted a beautiful woman in a diaphanous skirt contemplating a crystal ball showing the future of transport. Each different mode was depicted in the rays of light coming from the ball.

In 1987, Charles Sykes’s daughter Josephine – herself a sculptor and artist – wrote the following account of her father’s work. “My father, Charles Sykes ARBS [Associate of the Royal British Society of Sculptors], had been making sketches for the inside pages of The Car and paintings for the covers for some years. The originals of many of these are in the ownership of the present Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and some can be seen in the National Motor Museum. One particular cover for The Car was sketched in monochrome. The design suggests a modelling in low relief. The subject is in a fantasy classical mood and it depicts a car with wings on the mudguards and the wheels and bonnet remind one of a Roman chariot. At the driving wheel is a classical hero; he is being urged onwards by a goddess pulling after her a cloud; speed enthusiasts of the future! I can just remember being taken by my father to the offices of The Car in 62 Pall Mall when I was about five years old in 1913.”

Josephine Sykes was also aware of the woman who frequently modelled for her father. “I knew John Montagu’s private secretary, Eleanor Thornton, very well,” she wrote. “To me she was Aunt Thorn and was a great friend of my mother and father in our flat and studio in Brompton Road, Chelsea. She posed for my father for many pastel and Conté drawings and for some of his bronze statuettes and racing trophies. She is certainly the figure in this sketch for The Car cover.”

In 1952, the son of John Scott-Montagu, Lord Edward Montagu, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, decided to open a car museum as a tribute to his father. At first, the museum consisted of just five cars and a small collection of automobilia, displayed in the front hall of Lord Montagu’s ancestral home, Palace House, Beaulieu, in Hampshire. Edward decided that, along with the five cars, it would be Charles Sykes’s artworks that would tell the story of the development of the car. Montagu’s modest home collection would eventually be moved out into converted wooden outbuildings to become the Montagu Motor Museum and by 1972, with support from the British motor industry and enthusiasts, become the National Motor Museum.

Sykes’s artworks remain at the heart of Montagu’s collection. You can see the five oil paintings and one pastel drawing together with the framed plaster of “The Coming of the Car” in the middle of the wall over the display cabinet, which contains the Montagu Trophy and a Spirit of Ecstasy. All are connected with Sykes’s work for The Car Illustrated, and all are central to British motoring history.

This article contains extracts from the forthcoming book Towards the Dawn: The Story of Charles Sykes and the Spirit of Ecstasy, by Jeff Booker