Charles Robinson Sykes 1875-1950
Charles Robinson Sykes was born on 18th December 1875. As a boy he attended Rutherford Art College in Newcastle. In 1898 Charles won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied under tutors such as Walter Crane (18451915), and the anatomist and anthropologist Arthur Thomson (1858-1935). It was at the Royal College of Art that Charles first studied sculpture and made experimental castings in gold, silver and bronze.
His teachers at Rutherford, and his parents, had hoped that after completing his education he would settle in Newcastle and help train the city's up and coming craftsmen. But Charles had acquired a taste for London life, and was soon working and living among the capital's artistic community.
In 1902 Sykes was introduced to John Montagu (John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, the second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu after 1905) by Cummings Beaumont (the publisher of a Northumbrian county magazine). John Montagu was gathering together a creative team to help him launch a glossy weekly magazine called 'The Car Illustrated' from his newly acquired offices overlooking Piccadilly Circus.
Motoring mania was sweeping through London society and Montagu knew that his magazine needed a very high standard of production and design. Sykes' contributions, which ranged from cover artworks to fashion drawings - often incorporating winged goddesses, chariots and flaming torches; helped created the feel Montagu wanted for his publication. The front cover of the 1906 Christmas edition (entitled 'The Spirit of Speed') was a particularly fine example of Sykes' classical imagery. The original oil painting currently hangs in the office of Edward Montagu, the present Lord Montagu, at Palace House, Beaulieu, in Hampshire
Charles and his wife Jessica (whom he married in 1903), often stayed at Beaulieu as guests of John and Lady Montagu. They became such close friends of the Montagus that their daughter Jo (b.1908) was baptised in the Beaulieu parish church.
Claude Johnson became the first fulltime secretary of the newly formed Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland. in 1902 the club moved from it's original headquarters (at Whitehall Court) to 119 Piccadilly. Johnson soon took a close interest in both Montagu's magazine and Sykes' artworks and In 1903 he left the RAC to became joint manager with Charles Rolls of C.S. Rolls & Co, which (in 1906) became Rolls-Royce Limited. As a founding member and managing director of Rolls-Royce Limited, Johnson is often described as the hyphen within the Rolls-Royce name.
In 1903, under the patronage of Montagu, Sykes had designed the 'The Gordon Bennett Team Trophy' (to be awarded to the club achieving the best aggregate performance) at The Gordon Bennett Cup auto race in Ireland. Sykes' trophy depicted a female figure, cast in silver, holding a silver-winged bronze motor car. Montague was delighted with Sykes' trophy, proudly exclaiming that it 'combined originality of design with beauty of conception.'
In 1909, Rolls-Royce set about producing their most lavish brochure to date. Johnson commissioned Sykes to produce the artwork for all the colour plates. The resulting 80 page (1910/11) catalogue is a coveted document among Rolls-Royce enthusiasts, containing a wealth of information on the Silver Ghost's mechanical features and trials achievements. Notably, the publication also contains six oil paintings of Rolls-Royce cars painted by Sykes - 'Arrival at the Opera', 'Arrival at a Country House', 'Arrival at the Golf Links', 'Arrival at the Meet', 'Arrival at the Convert-side' and 'Arrival at the Salmon Stream'. So when, in 1910, Johnson decided that Rolls-Royce needed a mascot, it was to Sykes that he turned.
Whilst at the Automobile Club Claude Johnson's secretary was an Eleanor Thornton but in 1902 she became Montagu's personal assistant and, not long after became his mistress. Their affair was to remain hidden, limited to their circle of friends, for more than a decade. The reason for the secrecy was due to Eleanor's impoverished social and economic status, and Montagu latterly succumbing to family pressures, married Lady Cecil Victoria Constance, but the affair with Thornton continued in secret.
During Sykes' time at The Car Illustrated, Thornton had become his favourite model, posing for many of his paintings, sketches and sculptures. It is very likely that Eleanor Thornton was the model for both the 'The Gordon Bennett Team Trophy' and later, Sykes' 'Spirit of Ecstasy' for Rolls-Royce and may indeed be the model and muse for this drawing.
In 1909 Sykes' had been commissioned in by Montagu (now the 2nd baron Lord Montagu of Beaulieu) to produce a radiator mascot for his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Sykes' presented a figurine of a female nude in fluttering robes, and, as if to symbolise a secret love affair, the forefinger of her left hand is pressed against her closed lips. Sykes' titled this mascot 'The Whisper' and is to this day unique to the Montagu family's Rolls Royces.
In 1910 Rolls-Royce slowly became aware that some owners were affixing 'inappropriate' ornaments to their cars. Claude Johnson's brief to Sykes was to sculpt a mascot for Rolls Royce that embodied 'speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace' to become the standard emblem of the Rolls-Royce brand and it was Sykes' daughter, Jo (born 1908) that believed it was on the road from London to Beaulieu that her father first became 'Very impressed with the smoothness and speed of the Rolls Royce car.... imagining that even so delicate a thing as a fairy could ride on the bonnet without losing her balance.'
In early 1911 Sykes' presented his mascot, entitled "The Spirit of Speed", to Rolls-Royce. This figurine had her arms outstretched behind her and her gaze firmly fixed forward. She was soon retitled "The Spirit of Ecstasy" by Johnson and became the official symbol of Rolls-Royce automobiles on 6th February 1911.
On 16th March 1911, Sykes assigned all his rights and interests in the Spirit of Ecstasy to Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce however agreed that Sykes' would be the sole supplier of the mascot, and production was organized from the Sykes family's maisonette above Herbert Barder's furriers shop at 193 Brompton Road, West London. Although Rolls-Royce took over the casting of the figures in 1948, each Spirit of Ecstasy continued to receive Sykes' inscription - as either 'Charles Sykes, February 1911' or 'Feb 6, 1911' or '6.2.11' up until a year after this death in 1950.
On 30 December 1915, Thornton and Montagu were aboard the P&O passenger liner SS Persia on their way to India when the ship was torpedoed without warning off the coast of Crete by the German U-boat U-38 commanded by Max Valentiner. It took less than 10 minutes for the SS Persia to sink. A total of 343 people (of the 519 aboard) were drowned, Eleanor Thornton was one of them but Montagu survived the sinking. Thornton and Montagu had an illegitimate daughter that they had previously given up for adoption.