Cast 1 (1904)

Early in the sculpture’s development, Watts identified the equestrian statue as an ‘expression of power’ [1]. On 29 December 1883, the Athenaeum reported on the progress of the sculpture, describing this equestrian statue in terms that could be interpreted as a reflection of the then current imperialist thought:

‘MR WATTS has made great progress with a colossal equestrian group, comprising a champion reining in his horse and looking steadfastly to the distance, shading his eyes while he gazes, as if in search of “lands unknown” to be conquered after he has subdued the known land in which he stands. This may be accepted as a type of active force, the world-subduing energy which conquers savagery and compels civilization’ [2].

By 1890, Watts had also made links between the sculpture and a lineage of conquest, suggesting: ‘I should like to write the roll of great names on the pedestal: Genghis Khan, Timon the Tartar, Attila, and Mahomet’ [3].

The first connection between Physical Energy and Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), the financier and statesman central to the expansion of the British Empire in Southern Africa, occurred when Rhodes dropped by Watts’s London studio in the spring of 1898. Rhodes enquired as to whether Watts would be able to paint his portrait [4]. Rather than undertake the work as a private commission, Watts then suggested that he would like to paint Rhodes for his ‘Hall of Fame’ series.

The portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, is one of a series of portraits which Watts used to record the ‘the men who make England – the prominent men who may hereafter be found to have made or marred their country’ [5].

During Rhodes’ last portrait sitting, Watts showed him Physical Energy in the garden at Little Holland House. Rhodes suggested it would be a suitable monument for his Cape to Cairo railway, and reflected ‘I would write on the base the names of the first subscribers, and the words “These people believed that this scheme was possible”’ [6]. Watts’s response was not recorded.

Following Rhodes’s death in 1902, Lord Grey (former Administrator of Rhodesia and Director of the British South Africa Company) approached Watts to ask whether the sculpture could be cast as a memorial to Rhodes. Watts agreed. He replied that he considered Rhodes to be ‘the last of great Englishmen of his type. My statue, intended as an emblem of the energy and outlook so peculiarly characteristic of him, shall be dedicated as you propose […] the gift so far shall be my contribution, and up to that point my identification with a great personality’ [7].

Cast at Parlanti’s foundry in Parson’s Green, London, Physical Energy was reported to be the largest sculpture ever to be made in bronze in Britain at that time. The colossal statue was initially exhibited in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1904, as part of the annual Summer Exhibition. Originally intended to mark Rhodes’s grave at ‘World’s View’ in the Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe, logistical difficulties prevented this from being realised.

Instead, the sculpture was relocated to Cape Town, South Africa, where it formed part the Rhodes Memorial designed by the architect Herbert Baker (1862-1946) and completed in 1912, where it remains today.

> Read on: Cast 2 (1907) of Physical Energy

[1] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.183.

[2] The Athenaeum, 29 December 1883.

[3] G F Watts quoted in Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.171.

[4] Letter from Dorothy Stanley to G F Watts, dated 10 May 1898, NPG Heinz Archive GFW/1/4/6Oa. Also confirmed in Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p. 267.

[5] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p. 267-7.

[6] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p. 271.

[7] Letter from G F Watts to Lord Grey, 5 April 1902, reproduced in Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.272.