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Who Were the Aero Girls?

The term 'Aero Girls' is taken from the labels on the original paintings and the boxes that contained them within the Rowntree & Co. Ltd archive. The phrase 'Aero Girl' is also present in the digitised sales ledgers of the Aero artist Anthony Devas, where portrait sales to J. Walter Thompson (JWT) are noted. Many of the sitters depicted in these portraits are unfamiliar with this name. Perhaps 'Aero Girls' was an internal reference at Rowntree and JWT, used to describe the 1950s campaign. The title did not feature in the advertising artwork itself. Nonetheless, a lack of initial information about the paintings and the women who sat for them led us to use the existing term 'Aero Girls', to describe this collection of twenty portraits and 'Aero Girl', to refer to a sitter for this particular campaign.

The search for the real Aero Girls

Until now there has been scant information on the identity of the Aero Girls. While the advertisers JWT wanted the portraits to stand out as being ‘different’ - like the chocolate itself - they kept the female sitters anonymous, and the product firmly in the foreground.

At the beginning of the search in 2013 we were unsure as to whether paintings depicted fictitious advertising characters or represented real women. We knew that several of the framed paintings had hung in offices and boardrooms at the Rowntree factory in York as recently as the late 1980s, when Nestlé bought the company. The back of several of the paintings are also labelled with the word 'CAKE' - the name of the department which produced Aero chocolate. These two pieces of information led us to wonder whether the Aero Girls were women from the York factory workforce and offices, but this would turn out to be a false trail.

Manufacture of Chocolate (c.1950), 16mm, silent, B &W. By permission of Yorkshire Film Archive.

Employee at the JWT offices in Berkley Square, London, 1950s. An Aero Girl portrait hangs on the office wall.  Image from JWT London Collection at the History of Advertising Trust.

Employee at the JWT offices in Berkley Square, London, 1950s. An Aero Girl portrait hangs on the office wall. Image from JWT London Collection at the History of Advertising Trust.

Now we know that many of the sitters were actually from London, specifically Kensington and Chelsea. They were artists themselves; art students; film makers; dress-makers; the partners, friends and employees of the Aero artists. The majority of the Aero Girls were of the same, artistic social milieu. They were often connected to the Chelsea Arts Club and Pheasantry Club scene in South West London, where artists' studios thrived. Artists Rose Wylie, Barbara Pitt, Margaret Reade, Pamela Synge, teacher Rosina Bacharach, film producer Stephanie Tennant, and personal assistant Sarah Ellis all had such links. Illustrator Diane Gabbott was painted by her then fiancé Raymond Gabbott; Ann Winter was sketched by her boyfriend 'Nobby' Clarke; and Janey Ironside, RCA Professor of Fashion, enjoyed her own flirtation with Anthony Devas.

Not every Aero Girl would fit this particular social mould. Rhona Lanzon worked in the Art Department at J. Walter Thompson, and Patricia Page, who worked for a London wine merchant, was spotted on a bus to Charing Cross by the society artist Alex Portner. Iris Le Louet was a professional touring tap dancer.

Just one of the known Aero Girls, Myrtle Crawford, was booked by JWT as a professional model. At that time she was a leading Vogue fashion icon, and later in life she became a painter herself.

Written by Kerstin Doble

Find out more about the Aero Girls