Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: Rolls Royce ornament, the 'Spirit of Ecstasy'

* One hundred and 10 years ago this weekend, the Midland Hotel in Manchester played host to the first meeting between Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. By the end of that year, the first Rolls Royce car, the 10hp, was being shown at the Paris Salon. You could snap one up for £395 (£40,000 in 2014).

* Owners tended to stick on their own ornaments, but the risqué vulgarity of some of them prompted Rolls's MD, Claude Johnson, to commission an official one.

* Johnson had spotted Charles Sykes's work in the weekly magazine Car Illustrated, and knew of the bonnet ornament he had created for the editor of said magazine, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. This ornament was a figurine modelled upon Montagu's mistress and secretary Eleanor Thornton called The Whisper; her finger was pressed to her lips to symbolise the secrecy of their affair.

* The ornament that eventually appeared on Rolls Royce cars, christened 'Spirit of Ecstasy', was based upon The Whisper. Her finger was no longer on her lips, but her billowing skirt made her a "beautiful living organism of superb grace". It was designed and sculpted by Sykes at 193 Brompton Road in London, now a branch of the Lebanese bank BLOM.

* Rolls, having died in an air crash back in 1910, never saw it. Royce apparently didn't much care for it because it impaired the driver's view.

* Over the years, Spirit of Ecstasy has shrunk, not least because of paragraph 6.1.1 of EC Directive 74/483/EEC which states that "ornaments which project more than 10mm from their support shall retract, become detached or bend over under a force of 10 daN exerted at their most salient point". Spirit of Ecstasy now stands 3in tall on a spring base which retracts gracefully on impact.

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