Article: Masterpiece in Marble - Australian Artist’s Achievements

By M.T.C.

Published in the Age, 21 October 1939

Paid £1/8

In Gundagai, on the Murrumbidgee, there is an old man, tall, sparse, white-haired, with a stoop to the shoulders and rough hands worn by toil. Those hands have wrought a masterpiece, and because of that, above the haze of smoke from an old black pipe there is a gleam of triumph in his one good eye.

In a tiny, dusty workshop, built under the floor of his house on the hillside, he spent practically every spare moment of twenty-eight years fashioning a delicate thing of myriad color, symmetry and perfect balance. He started first with a kerosene lamp as his light, then gas, then electricity. Though he never drew a plan or had the advantages of architectural training, relying on the clear-cut conception of his artist’s brain, he has produced an object so beautiful that is can only be called a "masterpiece in marble."

Frank Rusconi, the artist, was born of Swiss parents at Araluen, New Sough Wales. Marble always fascinated him, and, following in his father’s footsteps, he served his apprenticeship to the marble trade in Europe. But though he worked on some of the most important buildings in England, France and Italy, his homeland called him. In 1901 he returned to Australia, and in the same year discovered and opened the Borenore marble quarries near Orange, New South Wales. In 1905, because there was practically no other scope for the fine marble work he was accustomed to doing on the other side of the world, he settled in the monumental trade in Gundagai.

Four years later he conceived the idea of his "masterpiece in marble," and began to collect pieces of marble from all parts of New South Wales, from Caloola, Mudgee, Borenore, Galong, Bathurst, Kempsey, Gilmore, Rylstone and Gundagai. Fashioned after the style of the 17th century architectural artist Boroque – curves in preference to straight lines, heavy ornamentation and the use of large amounts of vari-colored marble – he set out to build something that would mark his connection with their discovery, and, at the same time, show to the world that Australia does possess marbles worthy to take their place among the world’s best.

Thousands of Pieces

This "masterpiece in marble" stands in a miniature garden setting, the overall measurement being 4 feet 9 inches x 4 feet, and contains 20,948 minute marble pieces, the smallest being 1/8 of an inch square, and the largest, a beautifully turned column, 5 feet high by 3/4 inch thick. In addition to the 20,948 pieces used, 9011 pieces had to be, discarded to obtain perfect match, color and quality. The columns are so slender and delicate that many a night’s work was lost when, in the final stages of polishing, they shattered in the master’s hands. The front door above the flight of 56 tiny marble steps which lead form the garden to the terrace, which is laid out in three different red marbles, measures 4 1/2 inches high by 2 1/8 inches wide; it is paneled in five different marbles and contains 41 inlaid pieces. It is complete with a tiny door knocker, while above the entrance hangs a minute light fitting, the globe being fashioned of a tiny moulded piece of white marble, and the socket of perfect fitting black marble.

There are 14 other doors, each paneled and perfect in every detail, 26 windows, each inlaid to represent glass, and outlined by a thread of black marble one-sixteenth of an inch in thickness. There are 281 turned columns, measuring 1 3/4 inch x 1/4 inch to 5 inches x 3/4 inch; 24 turned and decorated arches, 126 ball, acorn and scroll decorations on the balustrade rails, size 1/4 inch to 1 inch; 28 turned and decorated lamp posts, measuring from 2 inches to 4 3/4 inches high and each with its own tiny electric fittings and globes turned in marble.

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Article as it appeared in the newspaper.

"Masterpiece in Marble" The Age, 21 October 1939.

The top is finished by a marble ball resting on six beautifully turned columns, and just beneath are let in two eight-day clocks. In the garden there are three fountains; one a glorious shell-pink that, in itself, would be an ornament of rare beauty, standing 7 1/2 inches high, and made of seventeen pieces, and two white ones, 5 inches high, made of twenty pieces.

The whole is a work of such soft color – pink, blue-grey, black, red, white, ochre, delicate yellows, green, brown, besides numerous mottled effects – that one feels proud to know that an Australian workman, using exclusively Australian materials, could produce such unique beauty.

Working three hours a day over 28 years, at 3/- per hour, fixes the cost of labor at £4585! Ordinary masons’ tools were used, with the addition of a lathe constructed from a discarded household sewing machine. Nearly 5000 fret saw blades were used to do the cutting, and 15 dozen files were worn out over the years. Every piece is hand-cut, turned and polished.

Curing the years of continuous effort to bring to fruition his artist’s dream Frank Rusconi lost the sight of an eye, but, undaunted, he kept going, and sixteen years later, without even the aid of a magnifying glass, completed his life’s ambition. To-day it stands in a specially constructed room of his house, with a domed ceiling, and electric lighting so arranged as to reveal he exquisite beauty of each tiny piece; but, so far, since its completion in October, 1938, few have had the pleasure of seeing it Frank Rusconi is also the creator of the far-famed “Dog on the Tucker-box,” but it is his “masterpiece in marble” that will bring him wider fame.