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1904 Physical Energy

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The use of the courtyard or quadrangle at Burlington House to display monumental sculpture as part of the Summer Exhibition began in 1896. In that year, Harry Bates convinced Frederic Leighton, the President, to allow the installation there of his huge and complex model for the monument to Lord Roberts destined for Kolkata: Leighton had previously considered the courtyard to be beyond his jurisdiction.1 Further grand equestrian sculptures followed in the same location in 1900 (The Late Maharajah of Mysore by Edward Onslow Ford) and in 1902 (The Black Prince by Thomas Brock), the new tradition was welcomed as a means of freeing up the notoriously cramped displays of sculpture at the Summer Exhibition.2 In 1904, the theme was taken in a new direction when Physical Energy by George Frederic Watts was displayed in the courtyard (Fig. 1). Mounted on a rough-hewn stone plinth some two metres tall, the bronze statue—itself about three and a half metres tall—faced towards the arch opening onto Piccadilly. The nude rider twisted in his seat to scan the horizon to his left, and was therefore shown looking into the south-eastern corner of the quadrangle. This abstract idea expressed in monumental format bemused many commentators. The very title Physical Energy was considered “an awful and inartistic name” by some, while the radically changing appearance of the work from different viewpoints—now static, now collapsing—was found alarming even by those who admired its evident ambition.3 The more serious art critics struggled with the ungainly grandeur of the work. D.S. MacColl wrote of it “rising like a roughly sculptured rock” from the ground of the quadrangle, while Roger Fry, who looked long and hard at the sculpture’s harshly modern geometric composition, concluded that while ultimately a failure, it was “a great failure”.4

The plaster model for Physical Energy, now at the Watts Gallery, was begun in about 1883 and reworked for twenty years at Watts’ Kensington home, wheeled on a trolley in and out of a garden studio (Fig. 2). Initially a monument to specific human feats of energy, such as those achieved by the great conquerors of history, Physical Energy evolved into a more abstract expression of humanity’s place within the universe, our vital spark imagined as a natural phenomenon in unity with the energies of the stars and mountains.5 The work was brought back to earth by the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes. A few years before his early death in 1902, Rhodes invited himself into Watts’ home to have his portrait painted. Both Watts and his decidedly anti-imperialist wife came, in spite of themselves, to admire him. Rhodes was in turn seduced by the model of Physical Energy and wondered if it might form part of his projected Cape to Cairo railroad, intended to symbolise the unification of Africa under British dominion. In 1902, the Liberal imperial statesman Lord Grey, another of Watts’ admirers, decided that the sculpture should become a monument to Rhodes himself, and the model was cast so that a bronze Physical Energy might form part of a memorial in Africa: this was eventually completed at Groote Schuur in Cape Town in 1912. Grey further decided that the cast should be shown at Burlington House before being sent to Africa. Watts wrote to the President, Edward Poynter, that he himself thought it a bad idea, but as several eminent lords and gentlemen wanted it, he did not like to oppose them.6 Poynter accepted on the condition that the sculpture become a submission to the summer show of 1904 and therefore a formal guest of the Academy, not something imposed by a cabal of Lords.

Watts had been a lukewarm exhibitor at the Academy since the 1830s, sending in irregularly, and with no apparent logic, to an extent that even his adoring second wife and biographer, Mary Watts, considered “inconsistent and lawless”.7 Physical Energy was to be his last submission: the artist died while it was on show at Burlington House. Long associated with progressive political causes, Watts’ final appearance was ostensibly—ironically as it may seem to us—as a champion of Empire.8 Although Physical Energy was absolutely not intended by the artist himself as an allegory of the expansion of the British Empire, it is equally certain that this is how it was read by many commentators and presumably visitors. The critic Marion Spielmann wrote that Physical Energy “typifies that restless energy which has built up the Empire”, while Frank Rutter reported that: “one hears that replicas of Watts’s statue are to be erected in India and other parts of the Empire” (a false rumour).9

Watts’ massive bronze symbol, however, also hinted at a new energy emerging from the Academy itself. The work, lopsided and giddily oriented as it was, opened an artery of sorts between the Summer Exhibition and the capital. The horse and rider seemed impatient to join the traffic, the sculpture looking “as if it must sooner or later cause consternation among the Piccadilly bus drivers” thought the critic of the Speaker, while Lewis Lusk in The Art-Journal concluded his assessment of Physical Energy’s appearance with these words: “May the omen be fortunate, and may the Academy henceforth be more closely associated with mental as well as physical energy than has sometimes hitherto been the case.”10

In 1904, the Academy felt under attack: the President said as much in his banquet speech.11 Most conspicuously there was the ongoing row over the Chantrey Bequest, a fund for the public acquisition of contemporary British art, too much of which was seen to be being spent on works by the Academicians who administered the money.12 The matter came to a head during the Summer Exhibition: the House of Lords Committee appointed to investigate the question heard witnesses throughout July and reported, to the detriment of the Academy, in August.13 Meanwhile the king is said to have flaunted, during a visit to the Exhibition, his preference for his protégé, the painter Emil Fuchs, who as an Austrian was not eligible to join the Academy.14 Generally, the perceived lag between the contents of the Summer Exhibition and the dynamic reality of modern British art was a running critical sore. This year the Academy seemed, to some observers, to have made a concerted effort to respond to these criticisms, even to have gone to extreme lengths to prove itself open to all the talents available.

A new rule introduced this year reduced the number of works that a member of the Academy might submit from eight to six, while non-members’ submissions were reduced from eight to three—the idea being to encourage “outsiders” to identify their best works rather than leaving this to the academic selectors.15 Although careful analysis of the works that eventually were hung showed little change of ratio between outsiders and members, the perception was certainly that the former had been allowed to dislodge the former in the hanging arrangement.16 Few RAs sent in all their new maximum allowance of six works, although Sargent was an exception to this, and his strong showing allowed him, again, easily to triumph among the portraitists.17 The perception that this was, as Spielmann put it, “an outsiders’ exhibition”, was due in part to the placing of the veteran Scottish Landscapist David Farquharson’s Cornish seascape Full Moon and Spring Tide in the most distinguished position in the entire exhibition (the artist was elected ARA in that year at the age of sixty-five).18 Symbolist works by Sigismund Goetze and Peter Sauber were prominently placed, as were submissions by painters influenced by Impressionism such as Edward Stott and Adrian Scott Stokes.19

Away from the rooms of paintings, evidence of efforts to reflect the realities of contemporary practice were also apparent in the architecture section, where only new projects were included and drawings were admitted for their architectural relevance rather than as works of art in their own right. The “black and white room” however was judged, as it had been in previous years, to be a woeful travesty, ignoring the revolution in graphic art then taking place: a “dog-hole” was one critic’s less than flattering term for this section.20

On the way out of the Summer Exhibition of 1904, visitors would again have passed Physical Energy, the rider, from the rear, appearing to be “so awkwardly seated that we feel uncomfortably sure he must be riding for a fall.”21 Watts’ pitted, angular creation convinced no one as an allegory of the empire: indeed, it was no such thing. Physical Energy does however seem to have helped the Academy express its own desire to reach beyond itself and to harness some of the energy of the city beyond.

  1. R.A.M. Stevenson, “The Royal Academy”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 4 May 1896, 1; The Morning Post, 2 May 1896, 4.↩︎

  2. F.J.M., “Royal Academy Sculpture”, Speaker, 21 June 1902, 327.↩︎

  3. Academy and Literature, 30 April 1904, 501 and 7 May 1904, 530. Laurence Binyon compared Watts’ sculpture favourably with Brock’s The Black Prince, and argued that it did not require a title, being nothing more or less than a great expression of a plastic idea; “Watts and National Art”, Independent Review, March 1905, 205.↩︎

  4. The Saturday Review, 14 May 1904, 618; The Athenaeum, 7 May 1904, 597 and 21 May 1904, 663.↩︎

  5. See Stephanie Brown, G.F. Watts, Physical Energy, Sculpture and Site (Compton: Watts Gallery, 2007), to which I am thoroughly indebted.↩︎

  6. Watts to Poynter, 3 March 1904, Royal Academy Library, RAA/SEC/4/137/11.↩︎

  7. Diary entry, 11 April 1891, Watts Gallery Archive.↩︎

  8. Physical Energy in fact remained in the courtyard until September 1905 and so was present during the G.F. Watts Memorial Exhibition held January–March 1905, as well as the Summer Exhibition of that year.↩︎

  9. Royal Academy Pictures 1904 (London: Cassell, 1904), iv; “Round the Galleries”, The Sunday Times, 1 October 1905, 2.↩︎

  10. F.J.M., “Royal Academy. III”, Speaker, 11 June 1904, 247; The Art-Journal, June 1904, 190.↩︎

  11. Speaker, 14 May 1904, 158.↩︎

  12. “The Chantrey Trustees and the Nation”, The Burlington Magazine 5, no. 14 (May 1904): 116–117.↩︎

  13. The Manchester Guardian, 16 July 1904, 9.↩︎

  14. “Painter Protégé of King Edward, Who Snubs the Royal Academy for Him”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 6 June 1904, 2.↩︎

  15. London Evening Standard, 30 April 1904, 4.↩︎

  16. The Art-Journal, June 1904, 191; Speaker, 14 May 1904, 157.↩︎

  17. London Daily News, 16 May 1904, 4.↩︎

  18. Royal Academy Pictures 1904, ii; The Times, 30 April 1904, 12.↩︎

  19. Some critics read this apparent liberalism as mere passivity: “If it is right for an art society to have no convictions,” judged The Studio reviewer, then “the Academy is an ideal institution; for it commits itself to nothing, and is quite content to do whatever the general mass of the public requires.” W.K. West, “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1904”, The Studio 32 (1904): 26.↩︎

  20. British Architect, 29 April 1904, 309; The Academy and Literature, 18 June 1904, 663.↩︎

  21. The Tablet, 14 January 1905, 43.↩︎

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