Skip to content Accessibility statement

Mysteries of the Aero Girls unwrapped

Posted on 28 February 2014

The secrets behind an enigmatic collection of 1950s paintings commissioned by Rowntree will be revealed at a public talk in York next month.

Rowntree's Aero advert images c1950, By permission of Nestlé UK

Researchers Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor from the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives were fascinated by a series of portraits of young women commissioned  for use in Aero chocolate advertising from 1951-1957, and now held in the Borthwick’s collection.

With scant information on the artists, and even fewer clues as to the identity of the sitters, they began to uncover the stories behind the paintings, which led from the battlefields of the Second World War, through polite society in post-war London, to present-day celebrity, with plenty of surprises along the way.

An early success included tracing the last living Aero artist, Arnhem veteran Frederick Deane, whose recollections provided the researchers with a number of new leads.

Then, when their exhibition of the paintings at York’s Mansion House last October caught the attention of the media, relatives of the painters and their sitters began to come forward with yet more valuable information.

The researchers will reveal their fascinating findings during a talk called Who Were The Aero Girls? on Thursday, 13 March at Rowntree Park Reading Café as part of Women’s History Month.

Francesca Taylor said: “We have been amazed at the stories that have come to light and people have been very generous in helping us piece the puzzle together. Meeting Frederick Deane and several of the models from the paintings has really been an unexpected pleasure.”

Kerstin Doble added: “When we started the project, we were not even sure if the Aero Girls were real women. There is so much human interest behind these portraits - the stories we have collected touch on art, social history, fashion, the changing role of women, even the Profumo Affair.”

Special guests at the talk will include Virginia Ironside and Drusilla Gabbott, both daughters of Aero Girls. A writer, Independent columnist and former rock journalist, Virginia Ironside’s memoir Janey and Me recounts her relationship with her gifted but troubled mother. Painted by Aero artist Anthony Devas, Janey Ironside went on to become Professor of Fashion at the Royal College of Art, and a fashion icon in her own right.

Drusilla Gabbott thinks that her father, artist Raymond Gabbott, painted her mother, Diane – then his girlfriend – partly to avoid having to pay for an artist’s model. Although she had always known that her mother had been an Aero Girl, Drusilla saw the portrait for the first time at last year’s exhibition.

The Borthwick researchers’ most recent discoveries, which they will share at the talk, include the identities of a former Aero Girl who is now herself an acclaimed artist. Archive material from the Borthwick Institute and film footage from Yorkshire Film Archive will also be shown at the event.

In addition, there will be an exclusive preview of the Aero Girls website, due to launch in April 2014. Hosted by the University of York, this online resource will be the first showcase on the Library & Archives new ‘digital space’ website.

The Borthwick Institute is one of the biggest repositories for archives outside London, and includes the archives of Rowntree and Terry’s. The Aero Girl events are part of a programme curated by the Borthwick Institute for Archives under the banner of ‘Opening Up Archives’.

The Who Were The Aero Girls? talk will take place from 7pm to 8.30pm on Thursday, 13 March, at Rowntree Park Reading Café, Richardson Street, York. The event is being run in conjunction with York Libraries and Archives and is part of the Mint Yard Lecture 2014 series.

Tickets cost £5 and are available online at (Direct link: They are also available from all York city libraries. Telephone: 01904 552828.

Notes to editors:

Contact details

Caron Lett
Press Officer

Keep up to date

 Subscribe to news feeds

 Follow us on Twitter