Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Rolls-Royce ‘Makers of the Marque’: Eleanor Velasco Thornton

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Automobile Magazine
Editor | News | United Kingdom

“Eleanor Thornton has a unique place in Rolls-Royce history. She is best known as the purported model for our Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, but how this came about is part of a far more complex and fascinating story. Secrets, sacrifices and the ever-present risk of scandal dominated her tragically short but intense and colourful life. She was a strong, intelligent, self‑assured and highly influential woman in an automotive world that was then almost entirely male-dominated. She also played a pivotal part in a timeless, tangled, deeply human drama that would eventually make her, and the artwork she inspired, immortal.”
Andrew Ball, Head of Corporate Communications and Heritage, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Eleanor Velasco Thornton was born on 15 April in 1880 in Stockwell, south-west London. Little is known of her early life: what’s certain is that as the 20th Century opened, she was working as assistant to the ebullient and charismatic Claude Johnson, General Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain & Ireland (later the RAC) and soon-to-be business partner of The Hon Charles Stewart Rolls.

Eleanor rented rooms at The Pheasantry on the Kings Road, Chelsea; now a Grade II Listed building, its eclectic and flamboyant architectural flourishes were the work of its then owner, the artist and interior decorator Amédée Joubert. At that time, it was home to a thriving colony of artists (in the 1930s, the basement became a restaurant and drinking club, the regulars of which included the painters Augustus John and Francis Bacon, the poet Dylan Thomas and legendary actor Humphrey Bogart; it remains a nightclub to this day). Amid these bohemian surroundings, Eleanor lived a remarkable double life: by day, a professional executive assistant; by night, a life-model for the Pheasantry’s resident artists. One of those for whom she regularly posed was a talented illustrator, Charles Sykes.

Eleanor’s life changed completely and irrevocably in 1902. That year, almost 100 miles from London, on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire, John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, was grappling with a longstanding problem. He was yet to ascend to his future title of 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu; in the interim, for all his impeccable lineage and shining prospects, he was perennially short of cash. By a double misfortune, his life’s great passion was the motor car, which in those pioneering days was still very much the preserve of those with deep pockets.

Happily, Montagu had a flair for journalism, so his inspired solution was to set up Britain’s first dedicated motoring magazine, The Car Illustrated. Montagu could handle the writing, editing and publishing himself; but for images, he needed a professional illustrator. In one of those odd coincidences that so often shape history, the man he hired was Charles Sykes.

Among Montagu’s circle of motoring friends was Claude Johnson. When, through him, Montagu met Eleanor, he was instantly captivated by her intelligence and promptly poached her, offering her the position of Office Manager at his magazine. Eleanor accepted, and the aristocratic publisher and his new colleague – 14 years his junior – soon embarked on a lengthy clandestine affair.

Thereafter, Sykes and Eleanor found themselves suddenly thrown together as colleagues at The Car Illustrated, while already well acquainted with one another under very different circumstances. Whether this caused any awkwardness between them is impossible to say; but it seems unlikely, since Eleanor was soon posing for him again.

During this period (the precise date is unknown) Sykes produced a mascot for Montagu’s Rolls‑Royce Silver Ghost. Called ‘The Whisper’, it was a small aluminium statuette of a young woman in fluttering robes with a forefinger to her lips. It has been confirmed that Eleanor was the model: whether the mascot was a token of appreciation from Sykes to his friend and employer, or made at Eleanor’s instigation as a gift for her lover, remains a mystery. Whatever the truth, Montagu displayed it on every Rolls-Royce car he owned until his death in 1929; perhaps as a discreet acknowledgment of his love for Eleanor, which he kept secret for so long.

Tragically, Eleanor was among hundreds who drowned when the P&O passenger ship SS Persia sank in the Mediterranean in 1915. Montagu was among the handful of survivors: he spent three days adrift on an upturned lifeboat, having suffered a fractured shoulder. He was also nursing a broken heart. Devasted, he never fully got over the emotion of the loss of Eleanor – of which, naturally, he could never speak publicly. But for the rest of his life, she was with him in spirit wherever he travelled in his Rolls-Royce motor car.

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