Eleanor Velasco Thornton (15 April 1880 – 30 December 1915), born Nelly Thornton at 18 Cottage Grove in Stockwell, London was the model for the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet mascot. She adopted the first names by which she is better known when she started work in the offices of the motoring magazine Car Illustrated, after leaving school. Her father was Frederick Thornton, an Australian telegraph engineer, and her mother was Sarah Ann Thornton.
Car Illustrated was owned by John Montagu, who later became Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Thornton became his secretary and mistress, and he asked her to pose for his friend the sculptor Charles Sykes to produce a bonnet mascot for his Rolls-Royce. The result, produced in about 1911, was known as The Whisper, because the lady is holding a finger to her lips, perhaps symbolic of the secret affair between Montagu and Thornton.
Personal mascots had become fashionable by 1910, and Roll-Royce were concerned that some were “inappropriate” for fixing to their cars. After seeing The Whisper, Claude Johnson, managing director of Rolls-Royce, commissioned Sykes to design a similar dignified and graceful mascot for all future Rolls-Royce cars. Johnson had in mind some kind of representation of the winged goddess Nike,[a] but Sykes felt that a more feminine representation was needed, and so used Thornton as his inspiration for the Spirit of Ecstasy, a version of which is still seen on Rolls-Royce cars today.
Thornton drowned with hundreds of other passengers on 13 December 1915 when the SS Persia, on which she was travelling with Montagu through the Mediterranean on the way to India, was torpedoed without warning by a German U-boat. Montagu survived the sinking, and in later life was quite open about his affair with Thornton, unveiling a plaque in her memory in the Montagu family chapel.
- Nike is the goddess of strength, speed and victory.