G F Watts
We have been reprimanded by a Councillor from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the dislocation of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens in the last Statues in the Borough.
It transpires that Kensington Gardens is not in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, as one might have reasonably thought, but in Westminster. The line between the two boroughs is down the middle of the Broadwalk, towards the western end of the Gardens, but at the risk of further unsettling the RBKB borders agency, we are including another sculpture in Kensington Gardens, namely Physical Energy by George Frederic Watts.
It is hard to imagine what an enormous figure he was in the Victorian era, and that, apart from a recent revival of interest in the form of the amply-endowed and re-built Watts Gallery at Compton, near Guildford, he remained largely forgotten for decades. This may have had something to do with the nature of his work, which could be described as classic symbolism, and, of course, subject to the word that is the curse to any artist, fashion.
He was a friend of Rosetti, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lord Tennyson, and, through Tom Taylor, the dramatist and editor of Punch, met and married a young actress Ellen Terry a week before her seventeenth birthday and thirty years his junior. Sadly, within a year, she eloped with the noted architect, Edward Godwin, who designed Whistler’s studio in Tite Street, the White House.
Watts’s style apealed to the mawkish sentimentality of the Victorians, and his most celebrated painting, Hope, is of an allegorical female figure, bruised and blinfolded, sitting on a global rock, head bowed, and playing the one string left in her lyre. G K Chesterton suggested that a better title might be Despair. Watts became more intersted in sculpture later in life, and his naked man astride a horse, his eyes shielded against the sun, is his most famous piece, standing, as it does, on a stone plinth at the intersection of six footpaths.
There is definitely something awkward about the stance of the horse, and the scale of the man. The hind legs seem to be dragged down under the sheer weight of the warrior, and one feels he will never make the leap forward to victory, or perhaps, doom. The horse and man are both bristling with power, muscle, tendon and sinew, and the animals head is beautifully observed, but it remains a flawed piece, destined never to make it over the first fence.
Photo: Don Grant