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Who were the Aero Girls? Discovering Hidden Art in the Archives

Visit our online exhibition: Who were the Aero Girls? Investigating Art in the Archives

The "Who were the Aero Girls? Discovering Hidden Art in the Archives" exhibition at York Mansion House from 12 to 20 October 2013 launched the Borthwick Institute's synonymous research project.

Curated by National Archive Trainees Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor, the exhibition formed part of their wider appeal for help to unravel the Aero Girls mystery and unearth new information about these little-known paintings.

Aero Girls montage_ By permission of Kerstin Doble & Nestlé UK

View the paintings

Commissioned by Rowntree's for use in Aero chocolate advertising from 1950 to 1957, the figurative paintings feature titles such as Anna, Alice, Wendy, The Country Girl, The Art Student.

One of the major questions the Borthwick team were asking was whether or not these artwork titles represented fictitious Aero Girl advertising characters or recorded the names of real women.

Another project aim was to unearth the back stories of the women and the artists who painted them.

1184 visitors to came to see the exhibition in York, and have helped to reveal many new details about this archive collection of Rowntree's paintings.

Local visitors have also been able to shed light on where these paintings were originally on display within Rowntree's factory and provide us with new Aero Girls primary material.


'Nancy'. This image is used with kind permission of Nestlé UK.

One visitor who came to the exhibition on its final day, Drusilla Gabbot, revealed that one of the Aero Girls was in fact her mother, and that her father was the artist who painted her.

Drusilla also explained that although the painting is labelled 'Nancy', her mother's name was in fact Diane.

With the help of people like Drusilla it is now known that many of titles of the paintings are in fact fictitious, and a large number of the female sitters in the portraits were in fact artists themselves.

Read more about Drusilla's story in the York Press:

Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor said: "We've been astounded by the local and national response to the exhibition. Hearing about the lives of many visitors who used to work for Rowntree's during 1950s, helps us to understand this collection in the context of York's history. We've also been fascinated to meet some of the families of the artists and sitters and find out their stories."

Rowntree Aero girls pictures, displayed at the Mansion House, York, October 2013

Programmed during Chocolate Week 2013, the exhibition offered a rare glimpse into Rowntree's 1950s portrait collection - on show for the first time since leaving Rowntree's Haxby Road factory in York during 1990s. Free entry for all visitors was made possible by generous support from Aero chocolate.

The exhibition also explored why Rowntree's decided to use painted images of women in their print and television campaigns long after photography had taken precedence. Works by artists Anthony Devas, Henry Marvell Carr, Vasco Lazzolo, Norman Hepple and Fleetwood Walker featured in the show with a special focus on the only living portrait artist, Frederick Deane.

Aero chocolate is still made in York by Nestlé, who took over Rowntree's in the late 1980s. Nestlé archivist Alex Hutchinson said: "We're delighted that some of our old treasures are being shared with a wider audience. The Borthwick Institute does a great job of looking after parts of our archive and we're really proud to work with them."

Find out more

Further information is available on our Who were the Aero Girls? project page.

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