28 MAR 2017: The legend of Eleanor Thornton came up on my visit to England. Her story was exciting, mysterious and yet ultimately tragic. Travellers to England’s South East coast frequently hear of the woman from an impoverished background, a secretary at The Car Illustrated magazine at the turn of the twentieth century and the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament of the luxurious Rolls Royce.

Eleanor, known as Thorn, was the secretary to John Walter, known as John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu.

She came from a meager background, he from an affluent one.  They had a surreptitious love affair that started in 1902, complicated by status (her economic and his marital).

John Walter, founder and editor of Car Illustrated magazine commissioned English sculptor, Charles Robinson Sykes, to design a hood ornament for his own Rolls Royce, to distinguish it from others.

Bonnet ornaments were not common for automobiles at the time, so this was to be a symbol of decadence and it is widely believed that Sykes chose Thornton as his model.

Sykes created a figure of a woman standing on one foot, with her gown flowing behind her, and holding one finger to her lips as if she was keeping a secret. The legend is that the secret was the clandestine affair between Thorn and John Walter and the figurine became known as The Whisperer.

Soon after, Claude Johnson, then managing director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars commissioned Sykes to create a mascot for all future Rolls Royce cars that would be called The Spirit of Ecstasy. It is believed that again Sykes chose Thorn as his model.

Sykes’ new creation, completed in 1911 was of a woman leaning forward, with her arms stretched behind and above her with her gown billowing in the wind. The artist described his model in “fluttering draperies.” It was nicknamed “Ellie in her nightie.”

Sadly Eleanor Thornton drowned on the SS Persia in December 1915 when it was hit by a German torpedo, and she lost the grip of her lover John Walter.

The Spirit of Ecstasy continues to adorn all Rolls Royce cars and The Whisperer is on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. https://www.beaulieu.co.uk

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Pam Stellini

Pam Stellini delivers her original spin on alternate Tuesdays in her column Without Reservations. (Formerly titled, Notes from A Broad)

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