W. Russell Briscoe
Copyright 2007 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(All photos courtesy of the Rochelle Family)
On his 57th birthday, Russell Briscoe received a gift that would change his life and bring beauty into the lives of many others. His wife gave him some artist’s brushes and some oil paints.
Russell had been sketching for his grandchildren, but he had never painted seriously. Over the next 23 years, however, he painted many local subjects--all of them carefully researched and historically accurate. His art carried Knoxvillians back in time visually to those historic places and events.
He considered Knoxville more than merely a place to live. It was a place he cherished and, as a result, there are some 150 paintings in individual or museum collections—a visual chronicle of much of our history. They trace our development from early pioneer days through to our mid-20th century urban bustle. The paintings communicate both Briscoe’s personal recollections and the treasured childhood memories of conversations with his grandparents.
His careful research and meticulous rendering bring the past alive. He painted the Old Knox County Court House, Railroading in East Tennessee in the Early Days, the Gay Street Fire of 1897, Cades Cove in Pioneer Days and the Fouche Block 1894. He had a passion for trains and Main Street Station, Knoxville 1892 with its three trains on parallel tracks is particularly nostalgic for rail fans. His Christmas, 1909, a print of which hangs at the Mabry-Hazen House Museum during the season, even depicts a toy train on its oval track beneath the lighted Christmas tree.
W. Russell Briscoe Painting Gay and Union 1895
William Russell Briscoe, the oldest of five children, was born in Knoxville on November 5, 1899. He reached manhood in the family home on Clinch Avenue in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. His parents were William Nicholas Briscoe (1871-1952) and Lynn Russell Briscoe (1876-1904). His mother died when Russell was only five, but his benevolent stepmother nurtured the growing schoolboy.
Grandfather Daniel Briscoe Sr. served under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Civil War and later headed the large mercantile establishment, Daniel Briscoe Brothers and Company.
Russell attended the public schools in Knoxville and graduated from a preparatory school in the East, but World War I interrupted his further education. Toward the end of that war, Russell was assigned to Washington, D.C. where he met the sister of one of his U.S. Marine Corps friends, Miss Deas Adams. She was only 15 and Russell only 18. In 1923, he asked for her hand in marriage. She accepted and they formed a bond that would span 55 years. After the formal wedding in Washington, the couple caught the "Asheville Special" and honeymooned in Asheville. At their 50th wedding anniversary celebration at Cherokee Country Club the head table had a 30-inch wedding cake with a replica of a Southern Railway locomotive in meticulous detail.
Deas and W. Russell Briscoe with Their 1923 Wedding Photo
at Their 50th Wedding Anniversary (August 20, 1973)
Deas was born in Kensington, Maryland (near Washington), the daughter of James Hopkins Adams and Margaret Cantey (Darby) Adams. Her father worked for the Federal government in Washington, D.C.
In the late 1920s, Russell invested in a textile factory on Sutherland Avenue. When the Great Depression came, he had to declare bankruptcy as so many others did. Demonstrating the character he showed throughout his business career, he paid off every loan although he required years to do so.
For extra income he worked nights and weekends making toys, dolls and miniature houses and furniture. His handcrafted items were so well made that even New York stores like F.A.O. Schwartz marketed them. Deas helped by painting the toys, sewing miniature curtains and crocheting rugs for the miniature houses.
Russell joined the J.E. Lutz Company Inc., Knoxville’s largest general insurance agency, and rose to become the vice president and director of agencies and first vice president of the Tennessee Insurance Company. He was also a member of the board of the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway Company, a part of the Southern Railway System.
As a prominent businessman and civic leader, he served as president of the Downtown Knoxville Association, became a commissioner of the Knoxville Utilities Board; and served on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce, Valley Fidelity Bank and Trust Company, the Knoxville Tourist Bureau and as president of the Old Gray Cemetery Association. The Chamber of Commerce named him "Mr. Knoxville" in 1964 for his contributions to the city.
E.B. Copeland, President, Knoxville Chamber of Commerce,
presenting "Mr. Knoxville" Plaque to W. Russell Briscoe (1964)
The Lutz office was on the second floor of the Burwell Building fronting Gay Street with windows just over the marquee of the Tennessee Theatre. A glance out the window gave him the flavor of the city--the busy Gay and Clinch intersection with numerous streetcars (and later gasoline buses) carrying passengers downtown. His long-term attendance at the weekday breakfast meeting at the Farragut Hotel Coffee Shop with other prominent businessmen gave him a deep feeling for the city’s heartbeat.
Deas was also active in many organizations, including Knoxville’s Junior League, the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But as her grandchildren observed, "Her greatest desire was to be a good wife by helping and collaborating with her husband."
She accomplished her goal and Russell often acknowledged the fact. So did Briscoe’s descendants when they dedicated an exhibition of his life’s work, "A View of His City: Paintings by Russell Briscoe," to Deas Adams Briscoe. This most impressive collection showed at the Knoxville Museum of Art from November 6, 1986 to January 10, 1987.
The Briscoe children were William Russell Briscoe, Jr. (1925-1950) and Margaret "Peggy" Deas Briscoe Rochelle (1929-2005). Lt. Briscoe was the first military man from Knoxville to be killed in the Korea War in August 1950. On his 25th mission, he was killed in action flying an F-51 Mustang. He had destroyed an ammunition train and a tank and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters for his bravery.
His father later presented an oil painting of The Hill 1885 to the University of Tennessee to honor him and to adorn the wall in President Andrew D. Holt’s office. The main runway at McGhee Tyson Airbase is also named in Lt. Briscoe’s honor. His daughter, Cathy Briscoe Graves, resides in Knoxville.
Peggy Briscoe’s husband, Dr. Robert White Rochelle, was a pioneer in the space industry. They started their family in the Washington, D.C. area and lived there 25 years. Many Knoxvillians know two of their daughters, Ann Darby Rochelle of Knoxville and Ellen White Rochelle of Nashville. Mary Deas Rochelle Cavanaugh lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and Russell Briscoe Rochelle in Littleton, Colorado.
The Briscoe family lived at 2111 Terrace Avenue in the University area from the 1930s to the late 1960s. When University expansion claimed their property, they designed and built "Kensington" at 547 Cherokee Boulevard. The elegant brick and frame colonial house with four stately pillars had enough guestrooms for children and grandchildren.
There seemed to be no limit to Russell Briscoe’s talents. As a lifetime member of Second Presbyterian Church, he co-wrote a history of the church, Her Walls Before Thee Stand (1968), with Katherine Boies Buehler (1903-1998). When Lucille Deaderick began her classic book, Heart of the Valley: A History of Knoxville Tennessee (1976), she asked him to write Chapter 9 (Commerce and Industry).
But it was his art that captivated him (and us). Fortunately, his works included a Fountain City subject. In 1973, he painted The "Dummy Line" at Fountain City Park, 1890 and included the Fountainhead spring, the roof of the Station Building in the background, the Cooper's carousel, the gazebo, children on swings and the Fountain Head Railway Company’s dummy line locomotive puffing down the track bringing tourists to the park.
Along with most of his works, Briscoe provided a paragraph of historical facts on the subject of the painting. He wrote this description of the Fountain Head Railroad: "One short, but important, railroad was the Fountain Head Railroad which operated from Knoxville to Fountain City. Its trains were pulled by steam locomotives covered with a hood called ‘dummies’ and left Knoxville for Fountain City, then called Fountain Head, from their station on North Broadway across Tyson Street from Old Gray Cemetery. This line was abandoned in 1905 when an electric trolley line was constructed to Fountain City."
Briscoe’s grandchildren have granted permission and the Knoxville Museum of Art, courtesy of their new executive director, David L. Butler, has authorized a re-print of the painting. It went on sale ($45 unframed) on Memorial Day (May 28, 2007) during "Honor Fountain City Day." Several Fountain City art dealers now have it on display in their gallery.
The "Dummy Line" at Fountain City Park, 1890
(Courtesy of the Rochelle Family and the Knoxville Museum of Art)
After a heart attack, William Russell Briscoe seemed at first to be recovering and was cheerful and in good spirits; but a backset occurred and he passed away on January 18, 1979. After services at Second Presbyterian Church, conducted by Dr. Edmond Carver with Mann’s Mortuary attending, he was interred in Old Gray Cemetery. Deas Adams Briscoe followed him in death on August 27, 1987.
In an earlier age, when they were in fashion, William Russell Briscoe’s epitaph might have read, "He lived a happy and productive life and made a difference in the lives of his fellow man." His works live after him to both educate and inspire us.
Author’s note: The author wishes to thank the Briscoe grandchildren for their assistance in the preparation of this article and for providing photographs. Thanks also to the Rochelle Family and the Knoxville Museum of Art for providing access to W. Russell Briscoe's painting.
D-Briscoe3WRussell.doc (5/9/07, Revised 6/19/07)
Gate of Old Gray Cemetery
W. Russell Briscoe, Deas Adams Briscoe
and Kathryn B. (Mrs. Robert) Dempster, Manager
Gay Street Fire of 1897
W. Russell Briscoe and Deas Adams Briscoe (1963)
W. Russell and Deas Briscoe viewing Lydia Edward's Art (1976)