Issues in Accessing a Gurdjieffian Tradition

Lessons from a Study of Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953)


  • John Willmett University of Edinburgh
  • Steven J. Sutcliffe University of Edinburgh



Maurice Nicoll, G. I. Gurdjieff, The Work, Fieldwork Archives, Secrecy


The first named author has experienced ambiguous responses when he has approached persons associated with groups taught by, or in the lineage of Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953). As is well-known, Nicoll participated in Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man near Paris in 1922-3, thereafter studied with P. D. Ouspensky in London and Surrey, and subsequently taught his own groups from around 1931, producing at least two publicly known successors in Beryl Pogson and Ronald Oldham. In this paper we discuss a series of personal enquiries, some of which involve named public figures previously associated with the 'Work', and others who are not publicly identified. Responses (where received) have typically been noncommital. We reflect on problems in attempting to research, as academics, participants in a tradition which fights shy of academic enquiry despite its creative influence in fields such as psychology, literature and new forms of 'spirituality'. By locating our case within the discussion on problems in studying 'secret' (Urban, von Stuckrad) or 'hidden' (Sutcliffe) traditions, we explore possible reasons for this ambivalent reception, ranging from principled rebuff to the provision of a 'test' of the motives of the enquirer. At the same time, other scholar-practitioners have recently put unpublished Gurdjieffian texts into the public realm: for example, Maurice Nicoll’s writings have been brought back into print and his archive at Yale University has been publically available for some time. In light of these conflicting data between guarding access on the one hand and freely disseminating information on the other, we reflect on issues in accessing Nicollian and Gurdjieffian traditions and address the tension we detect between a movement preserving its integrity, assimilating to the post-1960s ‘new spirituality’ culture, or simply dying out.


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Author Biographies

  • John Willmett, University of Edinburgh

    John Willmett became a school music teacher after graduating from Bristol University. The title of his first doctoral thesis was “The Organ Chorales of Johann Pachelbel: Origins, Purpose, Style”. At the time of writing he is, under the supervision of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, completing his second doctoral thesis, “Maurice Nicoll and the Kingdom of Heaven: A Study of the Psychological Basis of ‘Esoteric Christianity’ as Described in Nicoll’s Writings”.

  • Steven J. Sutcliffe, University of Edinburgh

    Steven J. Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices (2003), editor of Religion: Empirical Studies (2004), and co-editor (with I. Gilhus) of New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion (2013).


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How to Cite

Willmett, J., & Sutcliffe, S. (2016). Issues in Accessing a Gurdjieffian Tradition: Lessons from a Study of Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953). Fieldwork in Religion, 11(1), 76-90.