Libby Phillips Meggs still remembers a college teacher’s question on the first day of class. Her hand shot up when she and fellow arts-and-design students at Richmond Professional Institute — now part of Virginia Commonwealth University — were asked whether they were admirers of Norman Rockwell.
“You’ll have to forget all that,” said the teacher, who saw fine art’s future in abstraction rather than realism.
But Meggs didn’t forget. In 1968, only three years after she graduated, she found a way not only to use Rockwell’s technique, but to use Rockwell himself.
An advertising art director, Meggs was the first employee hired by Martin and Woltz, which would eventually become the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was among the ad agency’s first clients. The Foundation wanted to publicize the reopening of three restored buildings in the Historic Area — Wetherburn’s Tavern, the Peyton Randolph House and the James Geddy House — as well as the introduction of interpretative programs at the Wren Building.
Meggs immediately thought of Norman Rockwell. She was a fan who collected the artist’s Saturday Evening Post covers and even the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes advertisements he illustrated. “He’s why I went to art school,” she said.
Her parents had once given her a book of Rockwell’s drawings that contained sketches of buildings and scenes from his travels. The style of those pencil sketches, she thought, perfectly fit the mood she was trying to create. The sketches became part of her pitch. Rockwell, then 74, was at the height of his popularity and much in demand.
“Who would think we could get Norman Rockwell?” Meggs recalled.
Apparently, all that was needed was an invitation.
“Is Williamsburg warm?” Rockwell asked, eager to escape the cold March winters of the Northeast.
It was only March, but 1968 had already been a busy year for the illustrator, a title he preferred to “artist.” Look magazine hired him to paint portraits of presidential candidates in advance of the political conventions. He finished several catalog covers before leaving for Williamsburg to begin his research.
Rockwell’s wife, Molly, took photographs, and Rockwell took frequent walks in the Historic Area, sketching on a pad. Dressed in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, he “looked like he was in costume to be Norman Rockwell,” Meggs recalled. He took special note of features of the Peyton Randolph House on one walk, marveling at the number of windows on the Colonial home.
The opening of the houses was the emphasis for the ads, but Meggs said it was Rockwell who decided to add drawings of people — a silversmith at the James Geddy House, a jolly tavern keeper for whom interpreter Dennis Cogle was the inspiration, and his own interpretation of Peyton Randolph.
“That made it a million times better,” she said.
Since retiring from a career in advertising and design, Libby Phillips Meggs has written and illustrated a children’s book, Go Home! The True Story of James the Cat.