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Object in Focus

G.F. Watts

Physical Energy

gesso grosso model

1870s- 1904

Watts Gallery, ComptonWatts only began to turn seriously to sculpture when he was in his fifties when he was safely established as a subject painter and portraitist. He strongly believed that sculpture should be defined by its public role and he was keen to create colossal works to be displayed in open and accessible places.

In his teens Watts had studied in the studio of William Behnes (1794- 1864) near his home and near the British Museum in London, where the Parthenon marbles, attributed to the Greek sculptor Pheidias, were housed. Watts was never actually trained in sculpture, however, he just made drawings in Behnes’s studio. He always insisted that he ‘learned in no school save that of Pheidias’.

The idea for Physical Energy developed from an earlier equestrian bronze sculpture called Monument to High Lupus, (see image 2) dedicated to the first Norman Earl of Chester. Watts had used gesso grosso, a mixture of plaster, glue size and chopped hemp or tow, which could be modelled when it was soft and carved when hard. The large and intricately detailed finished bronze of Hugh Lupus was erected in Eaton Hall, Chester in 1884 and after Watts returned to his original plaster sketch model ( see image 3) and began to restructure and develop it into a ‘great…embodiment of physical energy’.

Watts expained that Physical Energy was to be ‘a symbol of restless energy and a momentary suspension of ceaseless motion’. His concept was of ‘man as he ought to be- part of creation, or cosmos in fact, his great limbs to be akin to the rocks and to the roots and his head to be as the sun’. Watts worked on Physical Energy from the 1870s and was still making alterations to the plaster model when he died in 1904. The first bronze casting of the sculpture was done at Parlanti’s Foundry in 1902 while it was still ‘in progress’. Watts did not recieve any money for this as he gave it as a gift to the British Government. This sculpture initially stood at the grave of Cecil Rhodes in the Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe and now stands at the Rhodes Memorial, in Groote Schuur, Cape Town, South Africa.

A year after Watts’s death, in 1905 another cast was undertaken at James Dittons’s foundry in London. This sculpture was more refined, the surface texture more precise than the earlier Parlanti’s cast. Mary organised this casting and after the Office of Works took responsibility for its conservation and cleaning. This sculpture weighed six tonnes and took eighteen months to cast. It was completed and delivered to Kensington Gardens on 24th September 1907 where it remains to this day (see image 4).

In 1959 another version of Physical Energy was cast in bronze from the adjusted gesso model used for the London version and differs slightly, as the rein appears on the right like the first cast. The British South African Company organised for the Corinthian Bronze Company foundry in London to cast it. GF and Mary Watts had no influence on the production or siting of this third cast as the Trustees of the Watts Gallery in Compton were now representing the Wattses legacy. This sculpture was originally placed in front of the High Court building in Lusaka, Zambia, then at a race- course on the outskirts of Salisbury, later called Harare, in Zimbabwe. Since 1981, it has stood in the grounds of the National Archives in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Smaller models have been produced in the years since Watts died, including one by Watts’s assistant, Thomas Wren in 1914. In 1960, at the unveiling of the Lusaka statue, Lord Malvern presented the Queen Mother with a silver replica of Physical Energy cast from a plaster model made by Sydney Harpley A.R.C.A.. Since then similar sized casts have been presented by Rhodes University to alumni whose actions and achievements distinguish them as ‘role models’. The University also uses a 2-D design of Physical Energy as its logo, on the crest on its coat of arms, as franking for mail and on car stickers. In Britain, an image of Physical Energy has been used by the Labour Publishing Company Ltd. and as the trademark for products such as Energen Rolls, a ‘slimming’ bread substitute and a tonic wine. More recently and more aptly it has been reclaimed as the logo for the Watts Gallery, which has on site the original gesso grosso model which has been so altered over the years.
GF Watts’s gesso grosso model of Physical Energy has recently been conserved and moved back into the Sculpture Gallery which was built to house it. It’s train tracks have been restored so that it can be wheeled outside on dry days and for special events.

Catherine Hilary
Curatorial Fellow