Anna, Alice, Wendy, The Country Girl, The Art Student – who were the Aero Girls? This is the question that’s been keeping Kerstin Doble, researcher at York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives, busy for the past year. One of the biggest repositories of its kind outside London, the Borthwick is home to archives of the city’s famous chocolate manufacturer, Rowntree’s (now part of Nestlé). It’s a fascinating collection, a mausoleum of the inner workings of a great twentieth-century manufacturing force: boardroom minutes, memos, marketing strategy notes. And a few surprises ….
“I was given free rein to rummage through the archives, when a colleague pointed out a portrait by Anthony Devas,” recalls Doble, who had just arrived from a previous position at Tate Modern. “I was immediately arrested by the work, painted in an unmistakably 1950s colour palette, which captures a young woman in casual clothing. I wanted to know more, and saw that there were 19 additional portraits, all wrapped and boxed and shelved among paperwork.”
Pairing them up with advertising proofs, Doble soon discovered that these figurative oil paintings had been commissioned for Rowntree’s Aero Girls campaign by advertising agency J Walter Thompson, which ran in print and on television from 1950 to 1957. The idea behind the campaign was to differentiate Aero from arch-rival Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. This message was right there in the (rather punctuationally erratic) slogan that adorned the adverts: “DIFFERENT … for her, AERO – the milk chocolate that’s different!”.
And they certainly were different, both medium and message being a radical departure from traditional advertising tropes of the time. Much like today, photography and illustration were predominant, and chocolate in particular was sold with overtly sexual connotations. Customers were typically alerted of vague cosmetic health benefits, as if chocolate was some kind of beauty elixir, and told to “obey that urge”. It wasn’t exactly subtle.
But the Aero Girls went against all of that. The paint on the canvas itself speaks volumes; oils were an extravagance in post-war Britain, afforded only by high society. Even today, this fine art approach to advertising would stand out. And there was no cheap innuendo – here were elegant, confident young women, unpatronising symbols of an emerging youth culture.
But who were they? Aside from the proofs and a few notes, there was little information to go on, just those names written on the back of each canvas. Were they members of the Rowntree’s workforce, faces of post-war northern normality plucked from the chocolate factory? Were they models? Were they even real people or figments of the artists’ imaginations?
Those on the other side of the easel were easier to identify – they included leading portrait painters of the time, such as Devas, Henry Marvell Carr, Vasco Lazzolo, Norman Hepple and Bernard Fleetwood-Walker. But it was another name that got the ball rolling on Doble’s investigation, a morsel of information found in some related documentation: just the surname ‘Deane’.
It turned out that this was Frederick Deane, now 89 and the only surviving artist to have worked on the campaign. When news of the discovery reached him he was happy to help and provided information that got the investigation off to a great start: he explained how the ad agency sourced the artists from the Royal Academy and Chelsea Arts Club, and named his two sitters as Vogue model Myrtle Crawford and JWT employee Rhona Lanzon. The Aero Girls were real, but they certainly weren’t from the factory floor.
Before long, the investigation picked up pace. In keeping with the Borthwick’s commendable ethos of making the archives widely available to all, the paintings were exhibited at York’s Mansion House in October – it was a long shot, but perhaps a public airing would provide some answers.
“The exhibition launched our national campaign to unearth new information about the paintings, and quickly caught the attention of the media,” says Doble. “The heady mix of women, art, chocolate, advertising and mystery had broad appeal.”
One visitor to the exhibition was Drusilla Gabbott, who took a particular interest in the painting that simply had ‘NANCY by GABBOT’ written in pencil on the back of the canvas. This was in fact a painting by her father, Raymond Gabbott, of her mother, Diane. As new leads came along, they too confirmed that the first name titles of paintings, such as Anna and Alice, were fictitious. Eliminating this false trail was an important step – the names on the canvases were merely advertising character names, or perhaps practical labels to help the designers with the artworking process.
Within a few months of the unshelving of that first painting (now known to be film producer Stephanie Tennant), everyone from the Daily Mail to Channel 4 News had reported on the campaign to identify these women. The question was out there. Emails and phone calls from more relatives of the painters and their sitters began to flood in, full of missing pieces of the Aero Girls puzzle.
Doble has now identified nine of the sitters out of the twenty portraits held in the archive at the Borthwick Institute (and six depicted in other Aero Girls adverts). It seems that they were mostly existing acquaintances of the commissioned artists. As such, the campaign unintentionally captured a snapshot of a new generation of creatives: painters, lithographers, film executives, and dancers. One turned out to be Janey Ironside, former professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art, and a fashion icon in her own right. Another – one of the few surviving sitters – is Rose Wylie [shown, above right], a painter herself, recently the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain.
It’s believed that a further twenty or so missing paintings are now in private hands rather than lost, most likely hanging on the walls of ex-Rowntree’s and J Walter Thompson staff. Through the course of the investigation, other accounts have emerged of several sitters who ended up owning their portraits.
All of these stories are being gathered for the forthcoming Who were the Aero Girls? website, due to be launched in May. In the meantime, the paintings have been put back into storage. But that’s not the end of it for Doble.
“I am always on the lookout for arresting collections of visual work that don’t necessarily sit easily in their current setting. The Aero Girls paintings exist in a hinterland where art, advertising, business records and social documents overlap, which for me is what makes them so interesting.”
That hinterland is a vast undiscovered country, and thankfully there are those with the curiosity and tenacity to explore it. Left to their own devices, advertising’s historical artefacts would bounce around the echo-chamber of the web, losing context and curation until all we’re left with is a languishing Mad Men tumblr. Thankfully, institutions like the Borthwick exist. Well-maintained and freely shared archives are vital, as are the people who dedicate time and effort to exploring what’s in them.
Here’s to the archivists, here’s to the researchers and curators. Here’s to having free rein to rummage and finding something … different.
Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York and regular CR columnist. The Aero Girls project website is set to launch in May at digital.york.ac.uk/showcase/. More info at borthwickinstitute.blogspot.co.uk