Again the squirrels appeared out of nowhere sending this week’s missive spinning off in a obtuse direction. I was quietly minding my own business looking at a classic car collection when I spotted a figurine of 2 horses heads mounted on the front of a old Citroen 2CV. The CV is short for chevaux- vapeur which in English means two horsepower, hence the figurine.
I wanted to post the photo on my instagram account but I couldn’t for the life of me recall what the proper term is for the thingies that perch on the top of car bonnets. As ever I Googled and Wiki’d with the eureka moment finally; bonnet ornament! Or hood ornament if Canadian or American. That’s when the squirrels pounced as in the course of my research I stumbled upon the story of the Spirit of Ecstacy; the most iconic bonnet ornament. She’s stood proudly on bonnets of nearly every Rolls-Royce motor car that’s been built since 1911.
Charles Rolls started manufacturing cars in 1904 with Sir Frederick Royce selling them from his showroom in Fulham. Their partnership became the Rolls-Royce Company in 1906. The first cars only sported a badge and customers added their own often tasteless and gaudy ornaments which horrified Rolls-Royce. John Montague was the editor of Car Illustrated magazine; he later became the 2nd Lord Montague of Beaulieu. He was a friend of Rolls and Royce and suggested that they ask John Sykes an artist friend of his to design a bonnet ornament for Rolls-Royce. Montague had already used Sykes to design an ornament for his own Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
As a car enthusiast John Montague was one of the first members of the Automobile Club in London (now the RAC) and a young lady worked there called Eleanor Thornton, Montague was instantly attracted to her. He was however married and for a year or so they kept a respectable distance. Then in 1902 Eleanor became his secretary at Car Illustrated and their love affair started. Apart from close friends their relationship stayed secret, as the Edwardian vagaries of class distinction meant they could never marry as Eleanor was simply too ‘common.’ In 1905 Montague inherited the title and she became his personal assistant yet the class distinction was even more pronounced. Eleanor bore his daughter in 1903 but she gave her up for adoption. Lord Beaulieu kept in touch with his illegitimate daughter Joan until his death in 1929, he explained her origins to her and the great love he had for her mother.
Eleanor modelled for Sykes in the designing of Montague’s bonnet ornament. The result is a woman wearing long flowing robes or a nightie according to rumour, pressing a finger to her mouth, a sign of their secret love. It was named The Whisper and it can be seen at the Beaulieu Motor Museum in Hampshire. Rolls-Royce wanted to define their brand, traits such as grace and silent speed. John Sykes said ‘here’s one I made earlier’ and then altered it subtlety. He removed the fingers from the mouth and took her nightie off. The Spirit of Ecstasy or ‘Emily’ came into existence
As is/was often the norm with ‘those upstairs’ Lord Montague’s wife Lady Cecil Kerr knew about and tolerated the relationship between Eleanor and her husband, so when in 1915 he was asked to go to India as the Advisor on Mechanical Transport Services, Eleanor was allowed to accompany him instead of his wife.
On Christmas Day they departed for India on the SS Persia, but tragedy struck five days later when the ship was hit without warning by a German U-Boat torpedo. The ship went down in less than 10 minutes. The attack broke international law as Cruiser rules stated that passenger ships were to be given 30 minutes notice to allow passengers and crew to escape to lifeboats.
The lovers jumped into the water together but a wall of water hit them making him lose his grip on her and he was pulled underwater. When he got to the surface she was gone. Montague was rescued 2 days later from an upturned lifeboat and when he returned to England he had the rare good fortune to read his own obituary in The Times. For years afterwards he searched for his beloved Eleanor, never believing she was dead. Heartbreakingly he later wrote ‘I should have got a stronger grip on her!’