The tale of Nelly Thornton

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  • Spirit of Ecstasy
  • The Spirit of Ecstasy is recognisable as the mascot that adorns the radiator of every Rolls Royce car. Designed to embody beauty, grace, and speed, the mascot is not, as some think, an angel, but in fact a woman leaning forwards with her arms outstretched behind and above her with cloth billowing in the wind from her arms to her back.

    While the Spirit of Ecstasy is known the world over, the woman who modelled for the original sculpture is perhaps not. Her name was Nelly Velasco Thornton, born in 1880 in Stockwell, London.

    Calling herself Eleanor, 22 year old Thornton was the secretary of Lord John Edward-Scott Montagu, a wealthy conservative politician who became the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu. Thornton was also the Baron’s mistress, giving birth to a daughter by him, that she had to give up for adoption.

    In Victorian England, Thornton’s origins were too humble to ever make their love public. The disclosure of an affair that crossed class boundaries would have caused a national scandal.

    Lord Montagu was friends with Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, and having had Thornton pose for a custom made mascot for his own Rolls Royce motorcar, he was instrumental in making sure that “Thorn,” as he liked to call Nelly, became the official ornament that has adorned virtually every Rolls-Royce car since 1920.

    In 1915, as secretary – and mistress – to Lord Montagu, Nelly accompanied him on the SS Persia bound for India where he had been directed to assume a wartime command. However in the Mediterranean the ship was torpedoed without warning by the German U-boat U-38. As water poured into the sinking ship, Nelly slipped from Lord Montagu’s grip. She drowned along with hundreds of other victims. Lord Montagu survived by clinging to an upturned life boat for 36 hours in freezing water before he, and just a handful of survivors, were rescued.

    Their high-society love affair was kept a secret for many years to avoid scandal, but in later life Lord Montagu wrote in a letter to his daughter with Thornton that “Thorn” was “the most wonderful and loveable woman I have ever met… if she loved as few women love, I equally loved her as few men love…”

    On Rolls Royce cars, the Spirit of Ecstasy is still an original work of art that takes about one week to craft. Every statuette is polished and finished by hand, so no two are alike. Over the years the figure has subtly changed shape and size several times. However, in 2011, to mark 100 years since the original sculpture was made, Rolls Royce digitally remapped old photographs of Nelly Thornton to enhance her delicate features and restore a detailed likeness of her to the Spirit of Ecstasy.

    In life she may have been a humble secretary, lost at sea more than a century ago, and while her name might not be widely known, the silver ghost of Nelly Thornton will forever travel the world in elegant ecstasy.

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