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Secret affair inspired Rolls-Royce mascot

The show includes artworks and objects that tell the story of motoring pioneer Lord John Montagu - editor of The Car Illustrated magazine, his secretary and mistress, Eleanor Thornton, and the sculptures of her that led to the Spirit.

The first Rolls-Royces did not have radiator mascots, but many owners commissioned their own to decorate their cars. Montagu had Charles Sykes create one for his Silver Ghost, and the sculptor modelled The Whisper -- a figurine of Eleanor Thornton in fluttering drapery, with her finger to her lips symbolising the secret affair.

It was one of the more dignified personal mascots of the day. By 1910 Rolls-Royce had become concerned that many owners were mounting vulgar mascots to their cars, and managing director Claude Johnson commissioned Sykes to design a mascot that could be "the spirit of the Rolls-Royce".

Sykes again used Eleanor as the inspiration for the figure that was first known as the Spirit of Speed and later became the Spirit of Ecstasy, which has since decorated nearly every Rolls-Royce. (Notable exceptions are Queen Elizabeth's mascot of St George slaying a dragon, and the late Princess Margaret, who chose a Pegasus.)

However, Eleanor did not live long enough to see how enduring her image became. She was killed in 1915 when the ship on which she and Lord Montagu were sailing to India was torpedoed by a German submarine. Montagu survived and is said to have grieved in secret for the rest of life.

The exhibition at Palace House - the Montagu family home - will feature The Whisper and other Spirit of Ecstasy figurines, and special edition covers created by Sykes for The Car Illustrated magazine, among other items.

The mascot - which is also nicknamed Ellie in her Nightie - has been through many changes over the years, several of which were prompted by the lowering height of the cars. A kneeling version was produced briefly in the 1930s, but was later replaced by a smaller standing mascot. In the US she was made to bow a little lower to better protect the car bonnets. On recent cars, the Spirit is spring loaded and retracts into the bonnet to deter thieves.