2 Apr 2014

Meet the Aero Girl who is also a world-renowned painter

Puff Daddy owns her work and she’s painted John Terry as King Solomon. Channel 4 News meets painter Rose Wylie, one of the mystery Aero Girls.

It is somehow fitting that my last story on Channel 4 News is a return to the Aero Girls, writes Katie Razzall. This is the third report we have done about the series of paintings commissioned by the chocolatier Rowntree in the 1950s to advertise Aero.

The portraits of young women, now referred to as the Aero Girls, were discovered in the archives at the Borthwick Institute in York, hidden away amidst boxes of old Rowntree paperwork (presumably there’s not much cause for the company to go back to its archive, now Rowntree is owned by Nestlé).

Puff Daddy owns a Wylie, bought for him by Naomi Campbell in Miami (that tickles Wylie)

Painted in oil, the women stare out from a different era, when chocolate-making in York was in its heyday. Since their discovery, working with the archivists we have been trying to solve the mystery and find the stories behind these pictures.

What is wonderful about this latest episode is that one of the Aero Girls is now a celebrated artist in her own right. Rose Wylie is almost 80, but has the youthfulness and vim of somebody a quarter of that age.

Aero Girl: Rose Wylie's painting shoes.

She’s only found acclaim in the last five years, with shows at London’s Tate and other galleries around the world. Puff Daddy owns a Wylie, bought for him by Naomi Campbell in Miami (that tickles the artist). Her work is contemporary, witty and fizzing with energy.

We took a copy of her Aero portrait to her glorious studio in Kent. Rose Wylie said she posed for the artist, Anthony Devas, when she was an art student in Folkestone and he was a celebrated portrait painter. She told me she can’t remember how much she was paid but she does know she didn’t like the picture. “It just wasn’t me” she told me, it was too chocolate box, which is of course what Rowntree must have wanted.

Rose Wylie’s picture became an advert in the style of all the Aero Girls ads we’ve seen; this campaign was aimed specifically at women and the tagline was that this chocolate was “different”.

Rose Wylie is certainly different, not just because her trainers say “Hot” on the tongues. Her studio floor is covered in newspaper (mainly old Guardians from where she often draws inspiration) and stacked high with paint pots. The skirting board is an artwork in itself.

When we met she had just finished a picture of Nicole Kidman as a child. She had seen pictures of the film star at a recent film premiere. From the back, Kidman looked as if she didn’t have anything on her top half, bar a black strap. “Only children would dress like that,” Wylie told me, and she began to paint.

Her works often feature her versions of celebrities. She did a Queen of Sheba picture with the footballer John Terry as King Solomon. He is wealthy, she told me, so was Solomon and the artist needed somebody contemporary to help her visualise the biblical king.

Her Aero portrait is not something she often thought about until her daughter told her about the search for information on the sitters. We are lucky though that her brief encounter nearly 60 years ago means we can celebrate an artist who is finally, age 79, getting the recognition she so richly deserves.

Anyone with any information about the Aero Girls should contact: whoweretheaerogirls@gmail.com

(Aero Girls images courtesy of Nestlé)