A Rolls-Royce Phantom I built in 1926 for American businessman Clarence Gasque as a gift to his wife Maude is one of the stars of a 29-lot auction to be held at Bonhams London on Sunday December 4.
Maude, a Woolworths heiress, had a passion for French 18th-century history and design, so Clarence, who was finance director of Woolworths’ UK operation, wanted the car’s interior to reflect her interest, and commissioned a miniature salon from the Wolverhampton-based coachbuilder Charles Clark & Son Ltd. (He also stipulated that it should be grander and more lavish than the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost made for his Woolworths colleague John Ben “Surefire” Snow.)
John Barnett, Clark’s proprietor, visited the Victoria and Albert Museum for inspiration. There he saw “a very delightful little sedan chair that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and had a painted ceiling”. He had found his template. The result was eye-wateringly spectacular – reminiscent more of the throne room at Versailles than the interior of a car.
The ceiling showed scenes featuring cherubs, more naked angels were used as supports for the lights at the rear corners, and there were yet more in the marquetry of the make-up cabinet and the gilt bronze mounts hand-cast by silver maker Elkington. The rear bench seat was upholstered in fine tapestries, woven by famous Aubusson carpet makers (at a cost of £500; then the equivalent of the price of a house), that depicted hunting scenes in a rococo style. A bow-fronted drinks cabinet with fold-down seats – also upholstered in tapestry – was built between the passengers and the chauffeur; a French ormolu clock and two French porcelain vases containing gilded metal and enamel flowers were placed on top. Barnett also devised a coat of arms at his client’s request, which was applied to the rear doors. The car, which became known as the Phantom of Love, took 10 months to build. On completion in April 1927, it cost £6,500, of which £4,500 had been spent on the interior.
Clarence died in 1928, and in 1937 Maude – who lived until 1959, passing the later years of her life promoting vegetarianism – put the Phantom of Love into storage, selling it in 1952 to the late, great Rolls-Royce collector Stanley Sears. It subsequently passed through the hands of enthusiasts in Japan and the US before returning to the UK and its most recent owner, who prefers to remain anonymous.
The Phantom of Love is, arguably, the most famous surviving Rolls-Royce after the AX201, the factory-owned 1907 Silver Ghost, and has an estimate of £500,000-£700,000. The car is in perfect working order, from the purring engine to the gloriously loud hooter, “and would make an excellent Christmas present,” adds Bonhams’ co-chairman Malcolm Barber.