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Physical Energy (sculpture)

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Detail of Physical Energy at Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, South Africa.
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Physical Energy at Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, South Africa.
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Physical Energy as the crest in the arms of Rhodes University

Physical Energy is a bronze sculpture by English artist George Frederic Watts. Watts was principally a painter, but also worked on sculptures from the 1870s. Physical Energy was first cast in 1902, two years before his death, and was intended to be Watts's memorial to "unknown worth". Watts said it was a symbol of "that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of material things". The original plaster maquette is at the Watts Gallery, and three large bronze casts are in London, Cape Town, and Harare. Other smaller bronze casts were also made after Watts's death.


The sculpture is based on Watts's earlier colossal bronze equestrian statue of Hugh Lupus, 1st Earl of Chester, commissioned by his namesake Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, later 1st Duke of Westminster, in 1870 and completed in 1883 and displayed at Eaton Hall, Cheshire. That work was itself based on equestrian elements of the Elgin Marbles.

Watts started work on Physical Energy in 1883. The original 3.5 ton gesso grosso model (made of plaster mixed with glue size and hemp or tow) is at the Watts Gallery at Compton near Guildford. He was assisted by George Thompson and Louis Deuchars. The sculpture depicts a classical naked man on a rearing horse, set on a rectangular wedge-shaped base. His left hand holds the reins, while he shades his eyes from the sun with the right as he looks to the left. It was originally intended to be dedicated to Muhammad, Attila, Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, thought by Watts to epitomise the raw energetic will to power.

Watts was reluctant to finalise and cast the work, and continued to modify it. Millais encouraged him to have it cast in 1886, but it was not cast in bronze until 1902.


The first full-size bronze cast of the sculpture was made at Alessandro Parlanti's foundry in Fulham in 1902. It was claimed to be the largest sculpture ever cast in bronze in Britain. Watts gave the statue to the British Government. It was originally erected at the grave of Cecil Rhodes in the Matopo Hills in Zimbabwe. It now stands at the bottom of the steps at the Rhodes Memorial on Devil's Peak above Groote Schuur near Cape Town, South Africa.

A second large cast was made in 1905, at A.B. Burton's Thames Ditton foundry in London, after Watts's death. More refined, it weighs 6 tons, and took eighteen months to cast. It was delivered to London's Kensington Gardens, in September 1907, and unveiled at a site overlooking the north-west side of the Serpentine. It also commemorates Cecil Rhodes.

A third full-size version of Physical Energy was cast in bronze in 1959, from the gesso model used for second cast. It differs slightly: for example, the rein appears on the right, like the first cast, rather than on the left, like the second cast. The British South African Company arranged for the statue to be cast at Leonard Grist's Corinthian Bronze Company foundry in London. It was originally located in front of the High Court building in Lusaka in Zambia. It was moved to a racecourse on the outskirts of Salisbury, in Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, in Zimbabwe). Since 1981, it has stood in the grounds of the National Archives in Harare.

Several smaller bronze versions were cast posthumously and sold commercially. One was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904. One example by Watts's assistant, Thomas Wren in 1914, sold by Bonhams for £40,000 in June 2014. Others in the collection of the Watts Gallery, at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and the Gibberd Gallery in Harlow.

In 1960, at the unveiling of the Lusaka statue, Godfrey Huggins, 1st Viscount Malvern presented the Queen Mother with a silver replica of Physical Energy cast from a plaster model made by Sydney Harpley.

Other uses

Rhodes University uses an image of Physical Energy as its logo, and the sculpture appears as a crest on its arms. An image of Physical Energy was used by the Labour Publishing Company Ltd, mainly in the 1920s. An image of the sculpture was used as a trade mark for products such as Energen Rolls. The statue is also used as the logo for the Watts Gallery.

The sculpture was one of the inspirations for Charles Villiers Stanford's Sixth Symphony, composed in memory of Watts.