The martial athletics of Diana Watts

Even before Edith Garrud began teaching jiujitsu classes for the women and children of London, Emily Diana Watts was pioneering the way for female martial arts instructors in the Western world. This post looks at her extraordinary career as a martial athlete and physical culture innovator.

Born into a wealthy family in the year 1867, Watts developed an early enthusiasm for the “strenuous life” and in 1903 she began studying jiujitsu with former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi and his associate, Akitaro Ono. By 1906 she was teaching basic classes herself at Prince’s Skating Rink in Knightsbridge. That was also the year in which she published “The Fine Art of Jujutsu“, a handsomely produced manual that was notable as being the first book in the English language to detail a number of Kodokan judo techniques.

Watts continued to study and teach jiujitsu but also found herself drawn to physical culture in the broader sense. By the beginning of the First World War she had become passionately engaged in the task of reviving classical Greek exercises via the close study of ancient statuary and artwork.

In 1914 she presented her new system in a book entitled “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal“, writing as “Diana Watts”. Although academics criticised her fashionably romantic view of classical Greece, pointing out that many of the translations she used to illustrate her points were themselves inaccurate, the book was generally very well received. On its strength, Watts was invited to join both the French Institut Marey and the American Institute of Archeology.

Her presentations put a new spin on both the fad for “Grecian” dance (exemplified by Isadora Duncan) and the traditional Victorian poses plastique. In displays of the latter type, athletes, often almost nude with their faces and bodies powdered with white makeup, would assume postures evocative of famous works of classical statuary. This form of visual theatre had been popularised by the famous strongman Eugen Sandow at the turn of the 20th century.

Rather than holding frozen postures, however, Diana Watts would demonstrate her interpretations of the athletic techniques portrayed by the statues. These included actions such as drawing a bow, hurling a discus or throwing an opponent in wrestling.

Here is a video montage of some of the exercises from “Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”, re-animated from the cinematographic photographs that illustrated the original book:

Diana Watts physical culture from Tony Wolf on Vimeo.

Several critics noted the “suspicious” resemblance between Watts’ “ancient Greek” exercises and those of the Japanese martial arts. In her own words:

In selecting and systematising different series of sequential movements which shall be perfectly natural, one turns instinctively to those needed in imaginary attack and defence, not only on account of the great variety of these positions, but because of the rapidity with which they must be performed. The origin, then, of all physical training is war. Among primitive peoples, it was necessary to be always on guard against sudden attacks. For this reason, during times of peace, they practised at first a sort of mimic war, which gradually developed into a sport. The Greeks ascribed the invention of wrestling to mythical persons such as Palaestra, the daughter of Hermes, and to Theseus is given the honour of having been the first to reduce the sport to a game, with well-defined rules, and thus to have made an art of wrestling; whereas before his time it consisted of the most brutal fighting, in which the strength and weight of the adversary alone decided the victory.

In the mimic battles of the Spartans, they frequently lost eyes and ears, which tortures they accepted as the necessary sacrifice in return for the indomitable fortitude which they acquired.

At a later date, the system adopted by the Athenians had for aim beauty of form and line, and grace of movement, and no competitor was awarded a prize unless his performance had been gracefully as well as effectively achieved. Contest by wrestling was divided into two branches by the ancient Greeks. The first was the “Pale Orthe,” the upright wrestling. The second was called “Halendesis” or “Kylisis,” in which the athlete wrestled with his adversary on the ground. The “Pale Orthe” was the only kind of wrestling practised in Homeric times, and also later on in the National Games of the Greeks. The rules provided that on the fall of an athlete his adversary should allow him to rise and resume the contest if he wished, but if he fell three times, the victory was decided in favour of the other. There were also preparatory exercises called “Analeinemata,” exercises which were looked upon as of the greatest importance, since through them alone could the athlete acquire that tense elasticity of muscle necessary for the extreme rapidity required in actual wrestling.

It is, then, natural to suppose that the preparatory movements represented as nearly as possible the actual positions taken in wrestling, so that by continued practice the pupil might arrive at the unhesitating certainty and precision needed in the varied changes of position of real contest.

Antique Art gives many examples of this extraordinarily rapid form of wrestling by tripping. It appeared many centuries later among the Chinese, brought back probably through their intercourse with the Persians. The form of wrestling called Jujutsu, practised by the Japanese of the present day, is, I am convinced, a survival of the “Pale Orthe” of the Greeks. The collection of tracings on page 39, taken from Professor Krause’s book “Hellenika Gymnastik und Agonistik,” show the close resemblance of some of the Japanese throws used in Jujutsu, to those of the Greeks.


No. 1, especially, is identical with the Koshinage shoulder throw, in which the thrower drops on his knees after having hoisted his opponent upon his shoulder. This throw can be given standing or kneeling, but the latter position is much more disastrous to the victim. No. 2 is obviously the Koshinage hip-throw, as used in Jujutsu at the present day, and No. 4 has a very close resemblance to the Japanese “Shimoku,” the position of the attacker’s left hand being the only essential difference, while he is practically erect, instead of crouching on bent knees.

The “Pale Orthe” was introduced into Japan by a Chinaman about the third or fourth century, under the name of “Jujutsu,” and remained a jealously-guarded secret known to and practised by the Samurai nobles alone, until comparatively a few years ago—in 1860, I think—when the general public were allowed to learn. With the strange liking of the Chinese for all that represents the grotesque in movement, they neglected, and eventually completely lost, all the grace and beauty esteemed by the Greeks as indispensable, and retained only the dramatic and practical sides of wrestling, the genuine self-defence, which, among the Greeks, was subordinated to beauty.

It is, then, upon the preparatory movements that I place such immense importance, and it was during the study of all the rapid changes of position in this “Pale Orthe,” which demand such exquisite balance, that I found for myself the Law of Balance in movement, the application of which allows of the greatest rapidity and force with the least expenditure of energy. This law, as I have said, requires the centre of gravity of a moving body to be kept exactly and continuously over its base, an impossible achievement except under the condition of Tension already described.

As explained in “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”, her training system went well beyond simple public performance, comprising a detailed method of physical, mental and even spiritual development based on the principles of balance and dynamic tension. It was also promoted as an aid to longevity, turning the tide of middle age and restoring youthful poise and energy.

Diana Watts spent many years touring on the international lecture circuit, sometimes in collaboration with other artists and researchers inspired by classical antiquity. Her personal wealth allowed her to fund these tours and to lecture free of charge, and by the 1940s she had circled the world five times, meeting Mahatma Gandhi and befriending George Bernard Shaw among other notables. She had homes in England, Italy and in Canada and was famous enough to have been written in to several novels and short stories as a sort of archetype of the eccentric physical culture enthusiast.

Watts’ system evidently worked for her, as she lived until 1968, passing away at the age of 101. Perhaps her training system is due for a revival.

Seminar footage from Eugene, Oregon

Footage from the Bartitsu seminar that took place at the NorthWest Fencing Academy in Eugene, Oregon on March 13-14, 2010.

The Eugene seminar included training in both the “canonical” or classical set-plays of the art and also in neo-Bartitsu drills, which are used as a transition between the set-plays and free-sparring. In these neo-Bartitsu exercises, the “opponent” can spontaneously resist or counter the “defender’s” scripted techniques and the defender is challenged to improvise to regain to control of the fight.

The focus in this seminar was on Bartitsu as a recreational martial art, rather than purely as self defence.

Bartitsu seminar in Eugene, Oregon from Tony Wolf on Vimeo.

Partnering instructor Tony Wolf are David Borland, Provost d’armi (classical Italian fencing) in the black shirt, Matthew Lowes, aikido shodan and certified Systema instructor in the grey shirt and Maestro Sean Hayes (classical Italian fencing) in the white shirt.

WMAC Bartitsu seminar footage

Some clips from Chris Amendola’s walking stick defence seminar at the recent Western Martial Arts Coalition conference in Houston, Texas. Chris demonstrates a series of canonical Bartitsu techniques including the “Guard by Distance”, “Closing With Opponents Under Unequal Conditions” and some takedowns, including neo-Bartitsu variations on the canonical techniques put forth by E.W. Barton-Wright and Pierre Vigny in the original source material.

“Bartitsu: the Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes” preview trailer

A special preview of our upcoming feature-length documentary exploring the cultural history, rediscovery and modern revival of E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence”.

Founded in London in 1899, Bartitsu was an early example of a mixed martial art, combining boxing, jiujitsu, savate and self defence with a walking stick. After a brief heyday, it was all but forgotten throughout the 20th century except for a single cryptic reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “the Adventure of the Empty House”.

Shot on location in Italy, Switzerland, England and the USA, “Bartitsu: the Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes” is presented by Tony Wolf and features interviews with Dr. Emelyne Godfrey, Harry Cook, Graham Noble, Will Thomas, Mark Donnelly and Neal Stephenson.

Watch this site for updates!

Preview trailer credits

Producers:

Ran Arthur Braun

Tony Wolf

Bartitsu Club Italia – Broken Art: Paolo Paparella & Angelica A. Pedatella

Cletarte – Gaetano Guglietta & Filomena Longo

Associate Producers:

Digital Room Srl

Music:

Adi Bar (piano)
Roni Cohen (cello)
Abney Park (“Airship Pirate” and “Sleep Isabella”)

“It’s brilliant, perfect … let’s change it!”: an interview with “Sherlock Holmes” fight choreographer Richard Ryan

Bartitsu.org is pleased to present an exclusive interview with Richard Ryan, fight choreographer for the new Sherlock Holmes movie, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr.

Previous screen incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective have often downplayed Sherlock Holmes’ talents as an athlete and combatant. However, according to the canon, the Great Detective was a skilled boxer, fencer and singlestick player, whose “knowledge of baritsu” famously saved his life in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. “Baritsu”, of course, is understood to have referred to the real martial art of Bartitsu.

“In the novels, the fights are often referred to off-stage; we will bring them on-stage,” explains co-screenwriter, Lionel Wigram.

For that reason, the producers hired Richard Ryan to choreograph the movie’s exciting fight scenes. Richard’s award-winning combat sequences have been featured in movies such as Troy, The Dark Knight, Stardust and The Golden Compass. His theatre experience includes fight choreography for The Royal National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Abbey & Peacock Theatres (The National Theatre of Ireland) as well as various West End and Regional shows.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Tony Wolf – Richard, tell us about how you came to be working on “Sherlock Holmes”.

Richard Ryan – That would be a combination of my previous film credits and “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon”.

Sixteen years ago I spent time in LA and whilst there swapped training with Eric Oram who I met through the Society of American Fight Directors. Eric practiced Wing Chun Kung Fu, which he studied with William Cheung, and I had the eclectic background that many fight directors have; I have studied a variety of eastern and western martial arts (in particular Aiki-jitsu and Classical Fencing) as well as stage combat.

Eric and I got on really well and had always spoken about working on a project together but despite a couple of near misses had yet to do so.

In the intervening years I’d established myself as a fight coordinator in the UK. Over time I managed to build a resume that included some big budget studio films.

Eric had continued to train and study Wing Chun becoming a Sifu (instructor) as well as one of that art’s pre-eminent practitioners. His Kwoon (school) was now well established and one of his students was Robert Downey Jr. Downey spoke to Eric about the possibility of using Wing Chun as the base of Sherlock’s fighting style. Eric didn’t know the film world in the UK and wasn’t sure he had the film experience for Holmes’ and the other fights. Also Warner Brothers would require someone with proven credits for such a gig, so Eric suggested bringing someone else on board and Downey, who I had met shortly after the release of Troy, said “well, what about your friend Richard?”

A couple of phone calls later I was on board … “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”.

T.W. – Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you started work on the movie?

R.R. – Yes, I was. I have read the complete works on a couple of occasions as well as individual stories. Of course I was familiar with the Rathbone and Brett interpretations as well as those paying homage, such as Gene Wilder’s in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, which includes a brilliant fight by William Hobbs.

T.W. – That was a great scene; it was one of the few prior movies to show Holmes as a skilled fighter as well as a master detective. So, what was your process of researching Victorian fighting styles in preparation for the movie?

R.R. – I went to my library and took both Captain Alfred Hutton’s and Egerton Castle’s books off the shelf (1). I dug out videotape of French Cane, which was in my archive along with notes on fighting with an umbrella (I had been given an impromptu class years ago after fencing in a competition with the Metropolitan Police).

In addition, I was already familiar with your work in the area of Bartitsu and had a copy of the Bartitsu Compendium, which I re-read.

T.W. – That leads us to the next question; can you talk us through your original concepts for the fight scenes as they were described in the script?

R.R. – This film wasn’t one where all the fights were laid out in advance and remained fixed. Indeed, like something from Holmes’ casebook, there was a lot of investigation to find the martial methodology and style for Holmes, Watson and the other characters that fought. This was due to trying to get in step with the contemporary aesthetic of the film, Guy’s way of working, how Downey and Law saw their characters, the evolving nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, script revisions, etc, etc.

As the overall narrative of the film relies upon there being a close bond between Watson and Holmes, it seemed to me essential that, in addition to it being in the text, we realize that partnership in a physical, unspoken way that the audience would recognize.

I knew we wanted to use the fights involving Holmes & Watson to establish them as a team. It was important that they be pro-active in doing the right thing, taking the fighting to the bad guys but enjoying the physical (culture) and relishing the adrenaline rush.

The principal places for this were in the opening sequence in the Crypt, the fight at Reardon’s digs and the fight in the “Sewer”. In all of these we wanted to utilize them as a team either fighting side by side or combining to overcome the obstacles before them.

T.W. – What about that big showdown between Holmes and Blackwood at the end?

R.R. – The final fight, on Tower Bridge, remained fairly fixed in concept all the way through. Having seen Holmes best everyone he fought he now comes face to face with the main antagonist of the piece and they go at it. I had to show elements of Holmes reacting to the danger, working out what he would do to counter the threat whilst getting the device that all were after at that point in the narrative. All whilst on a partially built Tower Bridge that is 200 feet up. In actuality it was 30 feet, in front of a green screen.

T.W.– The fact that Doyle’s “baritsu” is not Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu must have offered considerable artistic license. Was there any particular relationship between the movie’s fictional baritsu and the historical Bartitsu?

R.R. – Bartitsu, as you are acutely aware, is a mixed martial art involving boxing, ju-jitsu, savate, stickfighting and swordplay that was popular at the turn of the 20th century. In developing our Holmes combat style we wanted to use a neo-Bartitsu that was in keeping with the film’s contemporary aesthetic. To do this we chose to utilize the Chinese boxing that Downey practices as the foundation and also incorporate swordplay and elements of Brazilian ju-jitsu, which Ritchie practices. (2)

In this film Holmes only meets Moriarty fleetingly so if we were to introduce a form of Bartitsu it needed to be without the aid of Moriarty and within the structure of this ‘introductory’ episode of Sherlock Holmes.

Bartitsu for him was a starting point, and like any good martial artist, he continued to explore crossover points and philosophies between various martial arts. Whilst there is nothing in the script to indicate it, we followed the premise that in addition to Bartitsu, Holmes had a book or manual of Chinese Boxing and that he chose to test that system in a very pragmatic and practical manner by participating in bare-knuckle fights.

T.W. – Shades of E.W. Barton-Wright encouraging his students to cross-train between all the different styles taught at the Bartitsu Club.

So I’m gathering that the movie “baritsu” was a combination of various influences, choreographed with a contemporary edge?

R.R. – The film is competing with modern action films, such as Bourne and Bond, for an audience and I knew that with the creative and fight teams we had, our movie Bartitsu would be a modern interpretation. However, I wanted to capture the flavour of Victorian Bartitsu so I focused on the fighting ranges. I believed that if we could use the cane, foot, fist and grappling ranges then we would be able to create something that worked for both the contemporary and Victorian aesthetics.

This premise enabled us to construct fights, particularly the “Punch Bowl” fight, that demonstrate Holmes utilising various martial aspects and how, when under pressure, he was able to focus his mind, body and spirit to overcome a problem.

During the “Punch Bowl” fight Holmes sees Irene Adler and tries to concede the fight in order to pursue her. McMurdo (his opponent) rejects Holmes’ offered handshake and spits at him. This moment gave us the trigger to show Holmes’ intellectual clarity of purpose reflected in a physical way that would establish a key character element how Holmes lives.

On occasion we hear Holmes’ inner thoughts as he determines how he will defeat his opponent, what the physical repercussions of each blow will be and how long they will be out of action as a result of them.

T.W. – It’s an interesting device, making the audience privy to Holmes’ battle plan as it’s formulated a split-second before he goes into action. We don’t often get that sort of clinical detail in a movie fight scene. It’s also illuminating as to Holmes’ character.

R.R. – In his defeat of McMurdo, at the “Punch Bowl”, we wanted to have Holmes do enough to win but also to harness his anger at McMurdo’s behavior and teach him an important lesson about life without crossing over into being vindictive.

The practicalities of this meant we needed to make this ‘pre-visualized’ part of the fight extremely visceral. The way in which Ritchie planned to film the scene (with a high speed Phantom camera) meant we would see each impact as the strikes landed, so we had to plan for robust physical contact.

We constructed a fight that had Holmes block the blows coming at him and deliver a number of precise, hard, blows that would have the viewer wince in recognized pain.

The challenge then was ensuring we had the right performer as McMurdo. A British stunt performer, Dave Garrick, was cast in the role and he did a terrific job, throwing punches at Downey only to have them blocked and a sharp crisp counter-strike hit him. It was a very tough physical day for both he and Downey as although not full out, the blocks and strikes were real.

T.W. – I hope viewers will spare a thought for Mr. Garrick, then!

R.R. – While this visceral, dynamic fight, which gives us our first proper look at this action aspect of Holmes, involved only two people in performance, it was the product of collaboration from a fight team that included myself, Eric Oram (fight consultant), Franklin Henson (stunt coordinator), Dave Garrick and the erudite input of Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie.

T.W. -That’s good to hear. People sometimes don’t appreciate the degree to which movie action scenes are collaborations between specialists.

How were the actors and stunt performers trained for their roles?

R.R. – We had “Fight Club”, where in addition to rehearsals for specific scenes there were Wing Chun sessions, swordplay and, on occasion, ju-jitsu with Guy.

Robert trains most days either in the gym and/or practicing Wing Chun. In addition he had fight rehearsals on a regular basis. Jude Law and Mark Strong also work out on a regular basis.

They had fight rehearsals with me and these were structured around what was coming up next, so they peaked in their fight training just as we were scheduled to film each scene.

T.W. – Finally, I have to ask – what was it like working on an action film in which both the director and lead actor are martial arts enthusiasts?

R.R. – A team full of martial artists and creative artists! It was a wonderful, brilliant and occasionally frustrating time. We all had something positive to contribute and all were able to demonstrate what we meant.

The obvious hazard with such a situation is that you have “too many chefs and not enough Indians”.

In this instance, though, I believe it worked as we were all working to the same end. As with any new work situation, there is a period of adjustment at the beginning as you figure out the particular work dynamic, but fairly quickly we got to a place where we could and would be able to amend and change choreography according to any changing circumstance or script change that came up at the 11th hour.

We played and explored from the first day of rehearsals to the last day of shooting. Always allowing for improvement or suggestion. One of my favourite memories is Downey saying after I demonstrated the final fight on Tower Bridge “It’s brilliant, perfect” … and then adding with a wry smile, “let’s change it!”

Notes:

(1) – Captain Hutton was an instructor at E.W. Barton-Wright’s martial arts school in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, where he taught foil, epee and sabre fencing. Hutton’s students included actors and soldiers, who he trained in the skills of Elizabethan-era fencing. In 1901 he described the Bartitsu Club as being “the headquarters of ancient swordplay in England”.

(2) – Although the resemblance is probably co-incidental, many of the techniques of Wing Chun kung fu are notably similar to those of late 19th century “gentlemanly fisticuffs”. Both styles feature erect fighting stances, vertical fist punches and an emphasis upon protecting the central line of the body. The newaza (ground grappling) of Brazilian ju-jitsu closely resembles that of the eclectic “British ju-jitsu” that arose before the First World War.

“Textbook of Ju-jutsu” (1905) re-animated

Uyenishi3

Click on the image above to watch a video animation of all of the “cinematographic” photograph sequences from Sadakazu Uyenishi’s “Textbook of Ju-jutsu”, published in 1905. The techniques include both basic ukemi waza (falling) and nage waza (throwing) skills, as demonstrated by a Bartitsu Club instructor.

Sadakazu Uyenishi in action

jumovie

This animated GIF was created by John Lindsey of the e-budo forum. It is an animation of movie frames originally used as photographic illustrations in Sadakazu Uyenishi’s 1905 “Textbook of Ju-jutsu”. Uyenishi and his colleague Yukio Tani were jujitsu instructors at E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club between 1900-1902.

Although originally published as a series of photographic images, these 24 frames were shot as film footage and probably represent some of the earliest motion picture footage of jujitsu.

Not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes …

Sherlock Holmes movie trailer

The first official trailer for the upcoming Holmes movie, evidently calculated to outrage purists and attract the attention of a younger audience.

Holmes’ “baritsu” is not identical to E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu, but still, the trailer shows us bare-knuckle boxing, stick fighting, a jiujitsu-like throw and a savate-like kick.  By establishing the equation of “Victorian London” and “martial arts”, the new movie risks making Bartitsu cool ..

“Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” fight scenes

As an experienced boxer, stick fighter and expert in “baritsu”, Sherlock Holmes came close to E.W. Barton-Wright’s ideal of Bartitsu.  Click on the text links below to watch some fight sequences from the classic 1984 – 1994 Granada Television series, starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

Holmes attempts to fend off two attackers with his cane

Holmes demonstrates the gentlemanly art of fisticuffs

Holmes employs “baritsu” to defeat Professor Moriarty