Between 1950 and 1957, the York chocolate maker Rowntree used portraits of women in national advertising campaigns in newspapers, magazines, and on ITV for their Aero chocolate bars. In post-war Britain, sugar rationing had finally come to an end, but Aero would still have been a luxury item. The advertising firm J W Thompson ran the campaign with the slogan ‘DIFFERENT … For her; AERO – the milk chocolate that’s different!’
‘Esteemed and emerging portrait painters and illustrators’ of the day such as Anthony Devas, Henry Marvell Carr, Vasco Lazzolo, Norman Hepple, and Fleetwood Walker, were commissioned to create forty paintings in oil of ‘large illustrations of girl’s heads’. Only twenty of the paintings however are known to still exist.
In early 2013 researchers Kerstin Doble and Francesca Taylor, seconded from The National Archives to work at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at York University, were going through boardroom papers from the Rowntree company when they discovered the paintings. In October that same year they initiated an art and social history project called Who were the Aero Girls? to research the portraits. A national quest to uncover new information about the portraits was launched during National Chocolate Week 2013 with an exhibition at York Mansion House.
Some of the artists were known, though all but one of them are dead. The names of most of the sitters were unknown with their names written in pencil on the back of the canvas stretchers: ‘Alice’, ‘Anna’, ‘Audrey’, ‘Avril’, ‘Mary’, ‘Nancy’, ‘Wendy’, ‘Yvonne’, ‘The Country Girl’, ‘The Art Student’, or just ‘Unknown’.
Kerstin Doble told Channel 4 News, ‘When I first saw them it simply struck me that these oil paintings were hugely accomplished portraits of a disparate group of women, with plenty of references to old masters. Portraits in oil paint seemed out-of-place for commercial art of the 1950s, and I wondered how they had ended up in an archive otherwise filled with paper and parchment documents. They were hidden away alongside boxes of Rowntree’s sales figures, chocolate recipes, and board meeting minutes rather than with other artworks.’
A link to the project and to fifteen of the paintings is here. If you click on the Paintings link at the top, a mosaic of the paintings is displayed. Clicking on a particular picture displays a larger image of the picture and details of what is known about the artist and the sitter, and how the picture was used. There is a lot more information under the Explore link. Kerstin Doble has also written more about the project here.
In March 2014, Kerstin Doble wrote on the National Archives blog, here, that a more complete picture of the sitters and artists had begun to emerge. One of the sitters at the time was an impoverished art student, Rose Wylie, now 80 years old, who had just won a prestigious painting award.
Here is a black and white campaign advert that was shown on Yorkshire Television in 1955 though the identity of the sitter seems to be one of those that is unknown. It is not clear if the campaign was successful, since much of the increase in Aero’s sales during this post-war period can be attributed to a renewed appetite for consumer goods and the end of rationing after 1954.
Aero chocolate was originally introduced by Rowntree’s in the North of England in October 1935 with the aim of wrestling a share of milk chocolate block sales from their rival Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. The bar was Aero Mint and it cost 2d (old pennies) equivalent to just less than 1p. But by the end of the year, it had proved so popular with customers that sales were extended throughout Britain. The popularity of the chocolate is due no doubt in part to its unique honeycomb bubbly texture that collapses as the bar melts. A milk chocolate variation was introduced in the 1970s, and many flavours and varieties have followed. It is now sold in over 30 countries. Aero has been manufactured in York by Nestlé since 1988, and three hundred and thirty Aero bars are wrapped per minute.