Intrigue surrounds the iconic Rolls-Royce mascot, the Whisper – the precursor to the more well-known Spirit of Ecstasy.
The original Rolls-Royce Whisper figurine depicted a graceful young woman wearing flowing robes, with one forefinger placed on her lips. It was designed by eminent English sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes.
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He fashioned the bespoke statuette for wealthy Rolls-Royce customer John Walter Edward Scott-Montagu, the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, to sit on the bonnet of his luxurious 1909 Silver Ghost.
Legend has it The Whisper was born from an illicit romance that would have scandalised society in its day. The secret love affair between a member of the aristocracy and a beautiful dancer still fascinates people to this day.
Legend of The Whisper
The Spirit of Ecstasy figurine – The Whisper’s successor – graces the bonnet of almost every car created by the famous luxury vehicle manufacturer, Rolls-Royce.
The iconic Whisper mascot is said to have been modelled on Eleanor Thornton, an intelligent and stunning woman born in Stockwell, London, in 1880. A secretarial assistant by day, she was a dancer and model by night.
More than a century after The Whisper’s launch, there remains an air of mystery around its origins – amid claims Eleanor was Lord Montagu’s secret mistress, rather than simply his personal assistant.
Lord Montagu, born in 1866, pioneered the motor car in the early years of automobiles.
He grew up in Palace House in Beaulieu, Hampshire, a 13th century country manor that was refurbished and extended in the 1800s. Today, it remains one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the UK.
Montagu worked hands-on in the sheds of the London and South Western Railway in his youth to become a practical engineer.
On leaving school at 16, Eleanor started working in the office of the Royal Automobile Club in London. She became secretary of the motoring magazine, Car Illustrated.
Her job brought her into contact with many car enthusiasts, including Lord Montagu. She became his secretary in 1902, when she was 22.
Her experience working in the growing motor car industry made her an ideal candidate for the job, but secretly, Montagu was said to be captivated by her.
Eleanor reportedly lived a secret double life. She was a highly respectable and professional administration assistant during the day. However, in her private life, she was an exotic dancer and model.
She was regularly used as a life model by Sykes, a renowned sculptor of the era, who had studied at the Royal College of Art.
Despite a 14-year age gap, Lord Montagu and Eleanor began a secret love affair that was to continue for 13 years. In the early 20th century, it wasn’t viewed as socially acceptable for a person of the aristocracy to marry a “commoner”.
In 1903, they had a daughter together. They called the baby Joan, but decided they must have her adopted.
Montagu reportedly arranged for Joan to be brought up by a personal friend and his wife, although he always provided money for her upkeep and met her numerous times, being introduced as “Uncle John”.
Inspiration for The Whisper
Some years later, Sykes was commissioned to create a mascot for Montagu’s 1909 Rolls‑Royce Silver Ghost. Using Eleanor as the inspiration for the graceful figurine was a natural choice.
The Whisper statuette was also known as the “Spirit of Speed” at first. Sykes said the story behind the “graceful little goddess” was that she had selected road travel as her “supreme delight”.
She had alighted on the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce motor car to “revel in the freshness of the air” and enjoy the “musical sound of her fluttering draperies”.
Sykes described how she was “expressing her keen enjoyment, with her arms outstretched and her sight fixed upon the distance”.
The mascot became the winged “Spirit of Ecstasy” in 1911, when Rolls-Royce liaised with Sykes and registered the figurine as its intellectual property. Initially, the 100 mm tall mascots were silver-plated.
They were an optional extra on Rolls-Royce cars until 1939. Around 40% of the 20,000 cars produced during this period featured the Spirit of Ecstasy, although many were retrofitted.
A stainless steel mascot is now standard on Rolls-Royce luxury cars, while custom-made silver and gold statuettes can be specially commissioned.
The original Whisper statuette is now displayed in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.
End of an era
Tragically, there wasn’t a happy ending for Montagu and Eleanor. During World War I, Montagu became a member of the War Aircraft Committee.
On 30th December 1915, he and Eleanor were sailing on the SS Persia en route to India, where he was an adviser on Mechanical Transport Services to the Indian government.
While sailing through the Mediterranean, the ship was struck by a torpedo and sank within minutes. Eleanor was one of 343 passengers and crew who lost their lives in the tragedy.
Montagu was saved, after spending 38 hours adrift, when he was picked up by a passing liner, along with a handful of other survivors. He suffered a damaged lung and broken shoulder.
He never recovered from the physical and emotional scars, as he could mourn the love of his life only in private, due to the nature of their relationship. Her likeness continued to grace his Rolls-Royce cars until his death in 1929, at the age of 62.