Director's Speech - Physical Energy

Back to News

Posted 6th December 2017


Good morning. My name is Alistair Burtenshaw, Director of Watts Gallery Trust and it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here today. It feels particularly fitting that we are gathered here in the Royal Academy under the gaze of Past Presidents of the Royal Academy, Millais and Leighton, two of G F Watts' great contemporaries. This is a quite a day for Watts and Watts Gallery Trust,marked by the unveiling of Physical EnergyPhysical Energy - widely recognised as the most famous work by the great Victorian artist, George Frederic Watts OM RA - in the Annenberg Courtyard below us – one hundred and thirteen years after the first cast was displayed here in the Summer Exhibition of 1904.

The 1904 exhibition marked a turning point and was seen by critics to have welcomed younger, experimental artists. Physical Energy, created without specific reference to any individual as an allegory of human vitality and humanity's ceaseless struggle for betterment, symbolised this shift and, located here within this magnificent courtyard, set the tone for this seminal show. Not that our artist was young: in 1904, Watts was 87 and Physical Energy was to be his final submission to the RA. He lived to see the first bronze cast of this great work – the culmination of a lifetime's ambition in public sculpture – installed here at the RA but died shortly after. But experimental he certainly was: from the huge, fresco-like Story from Boccaccio, painted in Italy in the 1840s; to the Aesthetic works of the 1860s such as the exquisite marble of Clytie; to the Symbolist works of the late part of the century such as The All-Pervading. It was, perhaps, this tireless experimentation that led to Watts' reputation as one of the greatest artists of his age. Sculptor, portraitist and creator of classic Symbolist imagery, G F Watts became the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – attracting more than 1 million visitors at a time when the population of New York was 1.2 million.

The bequest of his paintings made significant contributions to the founding collections of Tate, which for many decades had a Watts Room, and to the National Portrait Gallery, which to this day continues to have on permanent display highlights from the artist's Hall of Fame series. Watts first exhibited at the RA in the first year of the reign of Victoria – 1837 and his last exhibit was Physical Energy in 1904. Today we celebrate the bicentenary of the artist's birth with a new bronze cast of Physical Energy commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust to mark 200 years since the birth of G F Watts and to create a new landmark for Surrey, the county Watts and his wife – the designer and artist, Mary Watts chose as a retreat from London in the latter years of the 19th century. Both believed in 'art for all', were committed to social reform and were generous philanthropists. In Compton, just outside Guildford, their vision and philanthropy transformed a struggling rural community into a thriving Artists' Village with Compton Pottery distributed Liberty & Co and commissions from Edwin Lutyens, Clough Williams-Ellis, Gertrude Jekyll and visitors to Limnerslease, the artists' house and studios, included Gladstone, Tennyson, Baden Powell and a young Vanessa Bell.

Following G F Watts' death in 1904, Compton became a place of pilgrimage to the extent that when in 1908 the International Art Conference convened in London, a special train was laid on to take delegates to Compton to view his legacy. Subsequently, Watts Gallery slowly fell into disrepair until thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and many generous Trusts, Foundations and donors, G F and Mary Watts' extraordinary legacy in Compton was restored. Today, their founding ethos of 'art for all' is once again transforming lives and our permanent display includes theoriginal gesso grosso model of Physical EnergyPhysical Energy, from which this magnificent bronze has been cast.

Watts Gallery Trust is now seeking to site this bronze in the public realm, on the side of the A3 as it passes the Artists' Village, to celebrate this unique legacy and to raise the profile of the rich cultural heritage of Surrey. Our vision is that Physical Energy and its message of humanity's ceaseless struggle for betterment will act as a beacon of creativity in our county and be a source of inspiration for residents and visitors alike. But before I hand over to Christopher Le Brun, President of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Rt. Hon. Anne Milton MP, Minister at the Department for Education, I would like to take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to my predecessor, Perdita Hunt - who couldn't be with us today - for her vision for the project, to Christopher Le Brun, Charles Saumarez Smith and everyone at the RA for their encouragement, to Tim Purbrick and everyone at Nevill Keating Fine Art who contributed so much to the project management of this feat, to Andrew Loudon, Dry Stone Walling Master Craftsman and his team for the beautiful Westmoreland dry stone wall plinth, to Steve Maule and his team at Pangolin Editions for the moulding and casting of the bronze and to Dr Nicholas Tromans, Brice Curator at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village who managed our project. Special thanks must go to our visionary lead donors, many of whom are here today, and to Art Fund and all the donors who gave through Art Happens in what was their most successful crowd-funding campaign yet!

But for now, it gives me great pleasure to welcome to the stage Chrisopher Le Brun, President of the Royal Academy, who has been so instrumental in making our vision of returning Physical Energy to the RA a reality.