The Physical Energy Project

Creating a landmark for the South East

The plaster model for Physical Energy, G F Watts's monumental equestrian sculpture, is on permanent display in the Sculpture Gallery here at the Artists' Village. The work is an allegory of the human need for new challenges – of our instinct to always be scanning the horizon, looking to the future. In the artist's own words, it is 'a symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of material things'.

Although best known as a painter, Watts was also a renowned sculptor. He began work on the gesso grosso model for Physical Energy in 1884 and was still working on it at the time of his death in 1904.

In 2017, during Watts's bicentenary year, Watts Gallery Trust commissioned a new cast of the iconic work to mark the artist's 200th birthday. This great sculpture has now been cast in bronze 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 so many others.

The sculpture will join us at the Artists' Village, when it is placed adjacent to the A3 - having undergone rigorous safety checks with Highways England -, as an emblem for the South East. We commit to work in consultation with all our communities to ensure that our presentation and interpretation of this project and our wider collections are informed by diverse voices, histories and experiences.

This page will keep you up to date with the latest news on the progress of our project to bring Physical Energy to the Artists' Village - you can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to find out more.

History of the sculpture

Physical Energy is a significant and innovative example of British sculpture and public art at the turn of the twentieth century. With a strikingly angular and avant-garde design, it represents the culmination of Watts's artistic ambition to create monumental art for the nation.

Having completed a commission for the Duke of Westminster for an equestrian monument to commemorate his ancestor, Hugh Lupus, in 1883 Watts set to work on a new plaster model of another horse and rider, without specific reference to any individual. Reinvigorating the tradition of the equestrian monument for the modern age, Watts conceived Physical Energy as an allegory of human vitality.

For more than 20 years, Watts worked on this colossal gesso plaster model at his purpose-built studio-home in Kensington.

The four-metre-high sculpture could be wheeled in and out of the studio on a set of train-like rails, which enabled Watts to work outdoors in the natural light. The model of Physical Energy was constructed with an adjustable armature of metal bars to allow Watts to constantly review and revise the position of both man and horse. The artist would continue to make changes to this ambitious work right up until his death in 1904.

Four full-size casts of Physical Energy have been produced since the turn of the twentieth century and the sculpture has assumed a variety of different meanings since its creation, both within the artist's own lifetime and afterwards. The first bronze was created at Parlanti's foundry in Parson's Green, London in 1902. Reported to be the largest sculpture ever to be cast in bronze in Britain at the time, the colossal statue was exhibited in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in 1904, as part of the annual Summer Exhibition. It then travelled to Cape Town to form part of a memorial to Cecil Rhodes, a figure who played a central role in British imperial expansion in Africa, which was completed in 1912. Following the creation of the first cast, the gesso model was returned to Watts and he continued to work on the sculpture until days before his death on 1 July 1904. After the artist's death, the second cast of Physical Energy formed part of Watts's substantial bequest to the nation. It was cast at Burton's foundry in Thames Ditton in 1906-7, taking over 18 months to complete, before being installed in September 1907 in Kensington Gardens.

Over fifty years after the artist's death, in 1959 a third cast was commissioned by the British South Africa Company. Originally installed in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia (now the Republic of Zambia) as a second memorial to Rhodes, it was relocated to Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe) following the independence of Zambia in 1964. When Zimbabwe later gained independence in 1980, is was relocated again and now resides at the National Archives of Zimbabwe.

Finally, in 2017, Watts Gallery Trust commissioned a new, fourth bronze cast of Physical Energy to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Watts. The bronze was cast at the foundry of Pangolin Editions before being exhibited in the Royal Academy's Annenberg Courtyard to celebrate the bicentenary, coinciding with the Academy's 250th anniversary celebrations. It was seen by an estimated 750,000 people during a five-month display, during which it also featured in the London Lumiere Festival in January 2018.

Since the sculpture's creation, Physical Energy has been adopted by the Labour Publishing Company as its logo during the 1920s and 30s. It was also used as the trademark of Energen Foods, manufacturer of the famous 'slimming' rolls in the 1950s. At Watts Gallery, ever since the gesso model was first installed in the sculpture gallery in 1907, Physical Energy has stood as a symbol of the artist's lifetime commitment to create large-scale, ambitious art for the nation. Today, it continues to reside as a symbol of Watts's artistic aspirations as the weathervane on the gallery roof.

As an allegorical sculpture, Physical Energy was not conceived by the artist with any reference to an individual. However, part of the sculpture's history became closely associated with the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes both in the artist's lifetime and after his death. Watts Gallery is dedicated to addressing the sculpture's multifaceted history as part of a reappraisal of colonial histories as they relate to this sculpture, the artist and the wider collections at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village.

With the installation of the fourth cast at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, we will examine the sculpture's multiple narratives and consider what Physical Energy might mean to us today.

Take a Closer Look - Zoom In

Project Updates:

23.09.19 - We are now close to completing the final design review process, including the technical approval needed for this public art installation, to allow our horse to be securely located alongside the A3.

We have now received donations or pledges of more than £904,000 – of £1.062 million - and are fundraising for the last fifteen percent to complete the installation this great sculpture for our region.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt 'Nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort' and this project has been a herculean effort by all parties involved. We cannot share our thanks enough - to you and all our kind funders and to Art Fund as fantastic supporters. This has been a complex project, but we continue to work hard to ensure its timely completion. We strongly believe that such a prominent and public work of art, with strong public backing, will in turn lead to the enhanced economic prosperity of Surrey not least given its ability to act as a powerful symbol of the dynamism, creativity and a place-making brand for our region.


22.02.19 - Work has now begun on site after leading environmental consultancy, ECOSA, conducted extensive ecological and environmental surveys.

Work to prepare the site, involving woodland management to safeguard wildlife and native vegetation, is underway and you can see progress as you pass the site along the A3 and from the Artists' Village.

“The installation of Physical Energy provides a wonderful opportunity to promote the rich cultural heritage of the area, providing an iconic landmark in the Surrey Hills.

We actively support the creation of views across the Surrey Hills and this is a fantastic opportunity to open up views that have been lost across the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and create valuable open habitat.

When undertaking major landscape works of this nature, the Forestry Commission and other regulatory bodies ensure that all the appropriate surveys and consents are in place."
Rob Fairbanks, Director for the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)


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