Statue of a man on a rearing horse seen through the galss doors of Watts Gallery

George Frederic Watts, Full-Scale Gesso Model for 'Physical Energy' on display in our Sculpture Gallery, early 1880s-1904, gesso grosso

Physical Energy is a monumental equestrian sculpture which George Frederic Watts began to work on in the early 1880s and continued to develop up until his death on 1 July 1904.

The bold and angular plaster model now on display in the Sculpture Gallery has been cast in bronze on four separate occasions.

Claiming to ‘paint ideas, not things’, George often used a unique symbolic language in his painting and sculpture. This is the case with his allegorical work Physical Energy: rather than a representation of a specific horse and rider, this sculpture symbolises a broader idea.

It was intended to express ‘man as he ought to be – a part of creation, of cosmos in fact, his great limbs to be akin to the rocks and to the roots, and his head to be the sun’ [1].

Physical Energy has assumed a range of different meanings, both within and after the artist’s lifetime. While initially conceived as an allegorical work, the sculpture became associated with the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), the imperialist financier and statesman central to the expansion of the British Empire in Southern Africa.

The sculpture has also been used as a logo for the Labour publishing company in the 1920s, and the 1950s food brand Energen Foods. Since 1960, it has presided over Watts Gallery as the weathervane on the gallery roof.

Strikingly angular in form, Physical Energy is a significant and innovative example of British sculpture and public art at the turn of the twentieth century, pointing the way to modernist sculpture. Ever since the plaster model was first installed in the Sculpture Gallery at Watts Gallery in 1907, Physical Energy has symbolised the artist's lifelong commitment to create ambitious, large-scale art for the nation.

[1] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.265.

Further reading

The plaster model

George Frederic Watts first began working on Physical Energy in the early 1880s. He was inspired by the completion of a recent commission from Hugh Grosvenor, the Marquis of Westminster, to create a large equestrian monument to commemorate his Norman ancestor, Hugh Lupus. This new sculpture of a horse and rider was created without reference to a specific individual.

Working at his purpose-built studio-home in Kensington, London, he would wheel the four-metre-high sculpture out into the garden on a set of train-like rails so that he could work in the natural light.

Made from gesso grosso, a thick plaster that is mixed with fibrous materials, Physical Energy has a richly textured surface. George began to experiment with this versatile material in the 1870s. Allowing the artist to both model the surface when wet and carve once dry, gesso grosso had a radical impact on George's work as a sculptor, enabling him to embark on much more ambitious and experimental projects. Watts continued to make radical changes to this model of Physical Energy for more than 20 years.

Following George's death in 1904, the model was relocated to Watts Gallery where it has been displayed in the purpose-built Sculpture Gallery since 1907.

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.

[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.

Cast 2 (1907)

George Frederic Watts’s original intention for Physical Energy had always been to create a large-scale public statue. As the artist explained, ‘I always intended the work, ever since it assumed positive form and on a level with my series of symbolic pictures, to be national property’ [1].

Once the first cast was made, the artist continued to revise the gesso model in his London studio. His artist-wife Mary Watts suggests that ‘one considerable change was being made’: ‘the head of the rider was thrown further back, and his outlook was therefore towards a higher point of view’ [2]. However, the time Watts required to finish the work was ‘shortened beyond his expectations’ when on 4 June 1904 he fell ill, passing away less than a month later.

After the artist’s death, this revised but still incomplete model was cast as part of Watts’s substantial bequest to the nation. As it was yet to be cast, £2000 was committed from the Treasury to pay for the new bronze.

In September 1907 it was installed in Kensington Gardens, London where it remains on public display today.

[1] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.270.

[2] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.348.

Cast 3 (1959)

Over 50 years after the artist’s death, a third bronze cast was commissioned in 1959 by the British South Africa Company as another memorial to Cecil Rhodes. Watts Gallery Trust gave permission for this third bronze to be created and received £210 from the British South Africa Company in return [1].
Cast by the Corinthian Bronze Company, London, from the original plaster model, it was installed in front of the High Court in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia (now the Republic of Zambia).

When the Republic of Zambia gained independence in 1964, calls were made for the sculpture’s removal. The British South Africa Company relocated the cast to Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe), then under British rule as part of Southern Rhodesia.

Following the independence of Zimbabwe in October 1981, the third cast was moved for a second time and relocated to the National Archives of Zimbabwe, where it continues to reside today alongside other dismantled colonial monuments.

[1] Lockhart & Woodhouse, Cecil Rhodes, the Colossus of South Africa, (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 420; Basil Williams, Cecil Rhodes(Makers of the Nineteenth Century Series), (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1921), p.328.

Cast 4 (2017)

In 2017, Watts Gallery Trust commissioned a fourth bronze cast of PhysicalEnergy to mark the bicentenary of Watts’s birth. It was exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Annenberg Courtyard, coinciding with the Academy’s 250th anniversary celebrations. It was seen by an estimated 750,000 people during a five-month display, during which time it also featured in the London Lumière Festival in January 2018.

Bronze statue of a man on a horse outside the RA

The Physical Energy Project

In 2017, Watts Gallery Trust commissioned a new bronze cast of George Frederic Watts's most ambitious sculpture, Physical Energy (early 1880s-1904) to mark the artist's 200th birthday. The project was made possible thanks to the Art Happens crowdfunding campaign (Art Fund) and the donations of friends, volunteers, donors, Compton residents, neighbours, staff, Trustees, artists, workshop participants and many others.

In preparation for the installation of the cast, the Trust asked the research company Morris Hargreaves McIntyre and Covalent Creatives to undertake a public consultation exercise to seek the views of a wide-range of people including the museum’s supporters, volunteers, visitors, the local community, academics, historians and artists to re-examine the ways in which the sculpture's multiple histories could be explored and interpreted and the best site found for its display.

The full report can be read here.

Two possible display locations were presented for consideration – one overlooking the A3 and the other within the grounds of Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village. The conclusion from our consultation is that consultees felt that Physical Energy should be sited in the grounds of Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village ‘in a location that creates a sense of awe and wonder’ and with ‘leading sightlines to do the sculpture justice’.

Plaster model of man riding a horse in a Gallery setting

Key findings from the consultation were:

  • The A3 location was recognised as not being accessible to all as there would be no disabled access in this location for those visiting the sculpture from Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village.
  • In the context of the work’s complex history through its associations with Cecil Rhodes, it was thought crucial that interpretation materials are accessible for all viewers. This could not be achieved if the sculpture was sited next to the A3.
  • It was felt that visitors should be given a choice whether or not to engage with the sculpture and that by siting it in the grounds of Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village, visitors had much more choice than if it was located by the A3.
  • The discussion around Physical Energy is important in itself. Siting the sculpture in a dignified setting within Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, with accessible interpretation about its complex history, was felt to be a real opportunity to promote discussion.

The Trustees of Watts Gallery Trust have given careful consideration to the sculpture’s location within our 18-acre site.

Subject to planning permission, the trustees have decided to display Physical Energy close to G F and Mary Watts’s home and studio, Limnerslease. You can see the location where the sculpture will be sited on this map.

This prominent site will give visitors plenty of space to view the sculpture and it will be designed to be fully accessible to all visitors, with accessible interpretation about the sculpture and its history.

Physical Energy is available to adopt

Each adoption membership lasts for five years.

Price: £5,000
Annual payment: £1,000
Monthly payment: £83.30

Contact the team

Email: rachael.gurney-o'
Phone: 01483 901809

Further information for this object: