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New website charts Aero Girls search

Posted on 25 September 2014

A new website launched today by the University of York unlocks some of the mysteries surrounding an enigmatic collection of 1950s paintings commissioned by Rowntree and held in York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Art Student - Anthony Devas, 1952 (Barbara Pitt) Oil on Canvas (By permission of Nestlé UK and Ireland)

The York Digital Library showcase follows the quest of researchers Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor to discover the stories behind a series of 20 portraits of young women commissioned for use in Aero Chocolate Advertising from 1951 to 1957.

The new website reveals how their search led them 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.

Former Aero Girls are still coming forward, with the mystery of the identity of the sitter in an Anthony Devas painting titled ‘Art Student’ solved just last week. Barbara Pitt, who now lives in South Africa, was 17 at the time of the sitting and attending Goldsmiths College School of Art. She was living in Chelsea with artist Adrian Ryan, who she married in September 1952.

Barbara Pitt, an artist and teacher, said: “I sat for quite a few well-known Chelsea artists who were friends of Adrian’s, but mainly for Anthony from 1951-57. Unfortunately he died in 1958, at the age of 47, a dear friend.”

Project Curator Kerstin Doble said: "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."

Arnhem veteran Frederick Deane is the last living Aero artist, and finding him at an early stage of their search provided the researchers with a number of new leads. He was able to provide the names of two Aero Girls, advertising agency employee Rhona Lanzon and the Vogue model Myrtle Crawford.

Frederick Deane told the researchers: "They paid top models to sit for me in the Royal Academy Schools. I didn't have a studio, I was still a student."

After launching a public appeal for information and hosting a public exhibition at York Mansion House in October 2013, the researchers were contacted by Aero Girl Pamela Synge. Now in her 90s, Pamela Synge is a visual artist, performer and writer. Her portrait was also the only Aero painting to feature in an early ITV advert in 1955.

Many of the other Aero Girl sitters also worked in the creative industries, as painters, lithographers, film directors and dancers. In March 2014, the researchers discovered that contemporary painter Rose Wylie, now 80, had also been an Aero Girl. Rose Wylie, who last week won the John Moores Painting Prize, says she was a “rebellious art student” at the time and her true image was “more punk than Mills & Boon cover.”

The new website ‘Who were the Aero Girls?’ features archive images, footage, biographies and first-hand accounts about the Aero Girls. To find out more visit the York Digital Library: http://digital.york.ac.uk/showcase/aerogirls.jsp

Anyone who has further information to add to the online resource and research project can contact Amanda Jones, Archivist at the Borthwick Institute: borthwick-institute@york.ac.uk

Further information:

  • A gallery of images for media use is available at: www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/features/2014/aero-girls-website/
  • Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor were seconded from The National Archives as part of the Heritage Lottery funded Opening Up Archives programme, to work on interpretation and online engagement projects at the University of York's Borthwick Institute for Archives.
  • For further information on the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York visit www.york.ac.uk/borthwick
  • More information about the York Digital Library at the University of York at www.york.ac.uk/library/collections/yorkdigitallibraryyodl/

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