Their faces were used to entice people into buying one of the country’s most familiar chocolate bars.
Enigmatic portraits of the sophisticated ladies were seen as being perfect for a major 1950s advertising campaign, used to promote Aero.
But little is actually known about the girls who were chosen to sit for the paintings used in the adverts and researchers are now keen to find out more about them.
A new exhibition in York is offering the public a rare glimpse into Rowntree’s 1950s portrait collection and a chance to see some of the ladies who starred in its campaigns.
Kerstin Doble, one of those who has organised the exhibition, said: “It was a major campaign, it ran for six or seven years at the time.”
She said of the ladies: “They all have an air of sophistication and are elegant ladies.
“It’s the idea that the person that buys the Aero bar is living a sophisticated life like the lady in the portrait.”
Notes on the back of the sixteen figurative paintings refer to Anna, Alice, Wendy, The Country Girl and The Art Student but mystery still surrounds who they actually were.
Initially Miss Doble said it was not known if the portraits, commissioned to advertise Aero from 1951 to 1957, were of real subjects or were a figment of the artists’ imagination.
But then those behind the exhibition managed to track down one of the artists, Frederick Deane, who now lives in Wales, and he confirmed the portraits were of real-life models and students.
The researchers are now keen to trace anybody who might know who the girls actually were. They also believe there are other paintings that were done which are not in the collection and they hope to find out more about these as well.
Miss Doble added: “We hope the exhibition will help to uncover new stories about these enigmatic portraits and will help us to answer questions such as who were the Aero Girls and what happened to the paintings that are missing from this collection?”
The exhibition at York’s Mansion House, begins on Saturday and runs until October 20, and has been organised by Miss Doble and Francesca Taylor, researchers from the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives and it is supported by Aero.
These days Aero chocolate is still made in York by Nestlé, who took over Rowntree’s in the late 1980s, although it has undergone a number of reincarnations over the intervening years, with new flavours and a number of relaunches.
Unusually, Rowntree’s decided to use painted images of women in their print and television campaigns long after photography had taken precedence.
Artists Anthony Devas, Henry Marvell Carr, Vasco Lazzolo, Norman Hepple and Fleetwood Walker all took part in the 1951-1957 campaign, and the exhibition features a special focus on the only living artist, Frederick Deane.
Miss Doble says in the 1940s and 1930s Rowntree’s invested heavily in a marketing campaign to get the new chocolate bar established. It was launched as a “new” chocolate and the light, bubbly bar proved a hit.
“It worked very well and it was very popular when it was first launched,” Miss Doble said yesterday. “I think it’s that aspirational idea that this Aero bar is something different with the bubbles and it’s not the average milk chocolate.”
The exhibition, Who Were the Aero Girls? Discovering Hidden Art in the Archives, will offer a rare glimpse into Rowntree’s 1950s portrait collection – which goes on show for the first time since it left the Rowntree factory in York.
Nestlé archivist Alex Hutchinson said: “We’re delighted that some of our old treasures are being shared with a wider audience. The Borthwick Institute does a great job of looking after parts of our archive and we’re really proud to work with them.”
The Borthwick Institute is one of the biggest repositories for archives outside London, and includes the archives of both Rowntree’s and Terry’s.
The Lord Mayor of York, Coun Julie Gunnell, said: “I am really excited that the Aero Girls exhibition will be held in the Mansion House.
“It would be fantastic if we could find out more about them whilst they are on display.
“This is a free exhibition, so I hope that residents will come along during the opening hours and share their stories and memories.”
Anyone who was an Aero Girl, or who knows one of the girls featured in the paintings is asked to email the Borthwick Institute for Archives at: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01904 321166.
Miss Taylor added yesterday: “Visitors to the Mansion House will be encouraged to share their own stories, to ask new questions and continue the research at the Borthwick Institute and beyond. If anyone was an Aero Girl or knows one, we’d love to hear from them.”