The Spirit takes flight

Born out of practical need and artistic endeavour, the Spirit of Ecstasy has evolved over the past 110 years into a global symbol of ultimate luxury. By Barrie Gillings

The mascots, emblems and ornaments that adorn motorcars have a history almost as long and intriguing as that of the motorcar itself. Many early motorists personalized their cars with mascots, not all of which were appropriate, and some manufacturers forestalled this practice by selling cars with company-designed figurines or emblems already on the radiators. From 1904 to 1910, Rolls-Royce cars were sold with a plain radiator cap. That, however, was before one Charles Sykes came into the picture.

Sykes was born in Brotton – a village in the ironstone mining district between the Yorkshire Moors and Teesside – on 18 December, 1875. He was educated at Rutherford College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. Under the patronage of his close friend John Montagu, the Second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, he painted a triptych and sculpted a bronze for Beaulieu Abbey, produced covers for Montagu’s publication The Car and, in 1908, had his bronze statuette of a bacchante (a follower of the Roman god Bacchus) accepted by the Royal Academy. He also used the pseudonyms Rilette, Jacques d’Or, Peroz and Psyche. Montagu introduced Sykes, by now a recognized sculptor, to Claude Johnson, the Managing Director of Rolls-Royce, who commissioned him to illustrate the company’s 1910 catalogue.

Following this, Johnson asked Sykes to design a mascot “that belonged to the [Rolls-Royce] car as much as a carved wooden figurehead belonged to a sailing vessel”. Sykes’s design greatly pleased Johnson, who said so, in very flowery words, in a letter to John Montagu. Rolls-Royce subsequently announced, in Montagu’s magazine The Car and in The Automotor Journal, that it had commissioned an appropriate mascot design. The extravagant writing style suggests that Johnson himself wrote the following statement:

“The Directors of Rolls-Royce Limited have always taken pride in endeavouring to ensure that the outward appearance of the Rolls-Royce chassis shall be as beautiful as possible. Purity in outline and a general appearance of elegance have in this respect been their ideals. Naturally, therefore, the directors of Rolls-Royce Limited were somewhat appalled in noticing that a few owners of Rolls-Royce cars had attached to the water caps of the radiators very grotesque forms of mascots, such as golliwogs, policemen and black cats… It seemed to them that if a mascot were desired by an owner, it might be possible to provide one of some beauty and they therefore commissioned Mr Charles Sykes to prepare a model of one which should convey the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy, a beautiful living organism of superb grace, like a sailing yacht. Such is the spirit of Rolls-Royce and such is the combination of virtues which Mr Charles Sykes has expressed so admirably in the graceful little lady, who is designed as the figurehead of the Rolls-Royce.

“The artist explains that, in designing this graceful little goddess, he has in mind the spirit of ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight, and has alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her fluttering draperies. She is expressing her keen enjoyment, with arms outstretched, and her sight fixed on the distance. Arrangements are being made by which an owner of a Rolls-Royce can acquire one of these figureheads at the cost of a few pounds.”

Rolls-Royce entered into an agreement with Sykes, dated 16 March 1911, in which he sold his copyright to the company, which then had the sole right of reproduction. Johnson registered the original mascot as a design under the name “The Spirit of Speed”. The name “Spirit of Ecstasy” was adopted a little later, probably a quote from the promotional item above, and Johnson was probably behind this iconic name.

The mascot has had many nicknames over the years – Emily, Nell, Nellie, Phyllis, Flying Lady, Angel, Thorn, Thorny and so on – but, on the Customer Order cards from Rolls-Royce Ltd on Conduit Street, the simple heading “Mascot” or “Mascot to be Fitted” is followed by a blank space or handwritten “no” or “yes”, according to the customer’s wishes, plus any special request, such as “brass” or “silver plated”. The Sykes mascot was available for purchase from Rolls-Royce from 1911 to 1939 and was always an optional extra. In a few cases, the customer supplied a mascot, either from a previously owned car or perhaps purchased directly from Sykes, and in fewer cases, a personal mascot.

The first Rolls-Royce mascot was probably the one fitted to John Montagu’s Silver Ghost 1404. The car has a test date of 5 September 1910, but the mascot creation date is 6 February 1911, five months later. So this mascot must have been “retrofitted” by Lord Montagu, which has significant implications for the pedant: if Lord Montagu, one of the people responsible for its very introduction, fitted a mascot made later than his car, then so can anyone else!

Photographs of Montague’s original mascot show that the base extends almost to the edge of the radiator cap. These first mascots were made with hollow bases, probably to allow fitting over a standard radiator cap, whose hexagon boss has been cut down a little, and have a chamfered edge to fit against the curved surface of the cap.

Eleanor Velasco Thornton is often thought to be the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy. She was originally Claude Johnson’s secretary at the RAC, and when Johnson resigned his position there, Thornton became Lord Montagu’s personal secretary. John Montagu’s son Edward, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, described Thornton as “a very capable and remarkable woman… a career girl”. She drowned, tragically, when the SS Persia was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1915. John Montagu, with whom she was travelling, survived.

In her spare time, Thornton modelled for sketches, sculptures and works of art for Sykes and others. And while the Montagu family believed for many years that she was the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy, Jo Phillips – Charles Sykes’s daughter and collaborator – has written that it would have been difficult for one model to have provided all the input for the final sculpture. In a lecture she gave on the Spirit of Ecstasy on 1 December 1959, she says that her father always said that the sculpture represented no one in particular, and that he used many, perhaps hundreds of drawings of many models before completing it.

Thornton is thought to be the model for another, earlier, hood ornament known as “The Whisperer”, or “The Whisper”. It was not an alternative design to the Spirit of Ecstasy but more a precursor, created especially for John Montagu to use on his personal cars. There is evidence of its use on his 1910 Silver Ghost 1404, his 1913 Silver Ghost 2499 and his 1925 Phantom I 145MC. Edward Montagu said that there were four made, and two of them are still with the Montagu family. Edward made numerous certified copies available in aluminium. One of the several large versions (after the fashion of the large salesroom versions of the Spirit of Ecstasy) was used in the 1990s as a trophy for an important car rally.

Jo Phillips says that, in the early days, there were five or six 22-inch-high Spirit of Ecstasy bronze sculptures made, mounted on marble bases and sent to Rolls-Royce showrooms in London, Paris, New York, Madrid, Berlin and, possibly, Buenos Aires, although it is possible that many more were made. Copies of them now abound, some very good, some fair and some poor, in a range of sizes. The genuine article, if it came with provenance, would command a very high price.

In later years, more were made and sent to various showrooms around the world. There are manufacturers of reproductions of these in the UK, the USA, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and probably other places. Some are solid polished brass, silver-plated or antique-bronzed, and very heavy. Some, usually the better-quality ones, are the more conventional hollow bronze castings. Most are between 18 and 24 inches high, not including the marble base, which most have.

Occasionally an example is offered with papers certifying that it is one of a limited series of reproductions. Some places have almost life-size Spirits of Ecstasy, but the buyer should be aware that few, if any, are likely to have been made by Charles Sykes, despite boasting his signature.

Some large models were probably prepared around 1920 for display in Rolls-Royce showrooms and dealerships. Photographs show several large mascots, one in a dealer’s premises, with improbable-looking wings, another somewhere in Europe but signed “Charles WMF” and others purchased in New York in the 1990s and in Australia. Auction houses in Australia occasionally import showroom-size Spirit of Ecstasy castings in batches, probably from Southeast Asia.

From 1911 to 1939 the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot was an optional extra and at first few chose to order one with the car, as Jo Phillips remarked and the Conduit Street Chassis Sales cards reveal. By 1920, however, the hood ornament had become highly regarded and, without telling Sykes, Rolls-Royce export manager Arthur Sidgreaves entered a gold-plated five-inch-high Spirit of Ecstasy in a competition, held in Paris that year, for the world’s best motorcar mascot, where it won first prize and a gold medal.

Sykes was invited to the company’s Conduit Street showrooms, where the medal was presented to him. It reads “L’Auto 1920” on the front and “A Mr Sykes Concours Des Bouchons De Radiateurs, 1er Prix” on the back. The now iconic figurine was well on its way to becoming a global symbol of peerless luxury and quality.