New clues emerge in the search for the Aero Girls – the mystery women who advertised Rowntree’s chocolate in the 1950s – as Channel 4 News reveals one of their identities.
It is the kind of mystery normally reserved for a Miss Marple plotline: paintings forgotten by time found hidden in an archive, dusted down and put on show to reveal the faces of 20 women in their radiant youth. But nobody knows who they are.
Some of the canvases are labelled with first names – “Anna”, “Audrey”, “Elaine”. Others are “the art student” or simply “unknown”.
These portraits advertised chocolate, Rowntree’s Aero bars, a luxury item in post-war Britain. They were painted between 1950 and 1957. There is little other detail. Some of the artists are known, but all but one are dead.
Two archivists at the Borthwick Institute decided they needed to know more and began a search to put name to face, with the launch of an exhibition in York, the UK’s spiritual, and physical, home of all things chocolate.
“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,” Kerstin Doble told Channel 4 News.
“They were hidden away alongside boxes of Rowntree’s sales figures, chocolate recipes and board meeting minutes rather than other artworks.”
“The only other information we had came from the Rowntree’s guard books which showed how the paintings were used in print adverts at the time, added Francesca Taylor. “After we first found them and began to dig a little deeper, we found we had more questions than answers.”
The hunt led to a house in Belgravia, west London, the home of Pamela Synge (pictured) and a former Aero Girl.
There Channel 4 News found the original portrait hanging on the wall: one of the missing paintings and a key piece in the Aero Girls jigsaw.
Pamela, 93, who was also the star of a 1955 Aero television advert, even wore the same gold hooped earrings (pictured) – a true Miss Marple moment.
Her son Roland Hudson-Bennett said: “My mother attended Rada, did ballet, acting, played the piano, sang in a number of languages, did Russian folk dancing, minor acting and was a painter in oils and acrylics. She still sings and plays the piano!”
Meeting Aero Girl Pamela Synge was a treat, writes Channel 4 News Reporter Katie Razzall.
She's 93 but still beautifully turned out and, amazingly, was wearing the same earrings she sports in her portrait in 1955. Mrs Synge still sings and plays the piano (she performed La Vie en Rose for our camera) but sadly remembers nothing about the past and her associations with Aero.
It's a stunning picture; sophisticated and elegant, she stares out, a reminder of how important style and glamour were decades ago. She told me, with a chuckle, "I've always liked to be properly dressed. I think people often don't have any standards."
It's a shame the memories are now lost. There's so much to discover about the story behind the Aero Girls campaign - who they were, whether they were paid for their services, whether they were recognised in the 1950s, why the advertising company decided oil paintings were the way to go.
We may not have got many answers from Pamela Synge, but it was a treat to spend the afternoon with an elderly lady who speaks five languages, loves dancing and singing and who spent her life painting and travelling the world.
Pamela did remember her favourite chocolate - Belgian and French. No Aeros for her.
The quest to find more living Aero Girls – and the missing paintings – now continues.
Alex Hutchinson, from Nestlé, which Rowntree’s became in the 1980s, said: “I’m delighted we’ve been able to find one of the women.
“But more of the artwork is missing. We don’t know exactly how many but we think about 40 based on the records we have – and we only have 20.”
Could one of the Aero Girls be your mother, grandmother, sister, wife – or your friend?
“We have had an amazing number of families and women with connections to the Aero Girls campaign coming forward,” said Kerstin Doble. “We are beginning to build up a much clearer picture of the types of women involved in the campaigns, many were artists themselves, dancers or young office workers.”
Archivist Francesca Taylor said: “The response has been fantastic – there is still a lot of information about the Aero Girls out there!”
View the gallery below and get in touch with Kerstin or Francesca at the Borthwick Institute. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who were the Aero Girls? Discovering Hidden Art in the Archives, York Mansion House until 20 Oct.
(Aero Girls images courtesy of Nestlé)