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Object of the Month: Physical Energy, 1884 - 1904

Posted 17th May 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery

by Dr Nicholas Tromans

The plaster model for Physical Energy, now part of the Watts Gallery Trust Collection, was begun in 1884 and reworked for twenty years at Watts's Kensington home, where the four-metre-tall sculpture was wheeled on a trolley in and out of a garden studio. The model was so constructed, with an adjustable armature of metal bars, as to allow the artist regularly to chop and change the limbs and positions of both animal and figure.

Some of these changes, recorded the artist's exasperated wife, were apparently intended to be only temporary, the previous configuration to be subsequently reinstated. Images of the work in progress over its epic period of gestation, if laid out in sequence, would almost suggest the great horse and rider in motion, a freeze–frame animated gallop at geological pace.

The meaning of the work too changed over time. Initially a monument to specific human feats of energy, such as those achieved by the great conquerors of history, Physical Energy evolved into a more abstract expression of humanity's place within the universe, our vital spark imagined as a natural phenomenon in unity with the energies of the stars and mountains.