Christopher Fremantle

Gurdjieff International Review

Christopher Fremantle


by Lillian Firestone

Of the many pupils who gathered around G. I. Gurdjieff, Christopher Fremantle was among those who continued to work for a lifetime. Tall, patrician, and soft spoken, he personified the gentleman and was able by his efforts and perhaps also by his nature to embody the ideas he transmitted.

He left a distinct mark in turn on his own pupils.

They listened to what he said, of course. Yet often it was just by watching him, trying to tune themselves to him, that they understood, at least for the moment, the seriousness of what he was trying to impart. Occasionally they shared in his joyfulness, which was apparent always, just below the surface.

He was born December 17, 1906; the youngest of five children. According to his wife, Anne, Christopher’s parents were devout Episcopalians. They held family prayers every morning in which servants and guests participated. Daily Bible readings for the children were supervised by his mother.

A formative influence was his housemaster at Eton who told the boys, “be nicer,” instead of scolding them. After receiving a degree from Oxford, Fremantle studied at the Royal College of Art and became a painter.

Christopher’s eldest brother was killed in World War I. His lifetime pacifism stemmed from an awareness of his parents’ agony in the ten days during which they watched their eldest son die from his wounds.

He met Anne Jackson in 1927, and they were married in 1930. In 1935, they were brought to the group of P. D. Ouspensky in London, and found a resonance there to their inner search. During the London blitz, Fremantle went to live with the Ouspenskys at Lyne Place, while commuting daily to his war job in London. The Fremantles were instrumental in bringing the Ouspenskys to the United States, and they worked with them in Mendham, New Jersey, until Ouspensky’s death in 1947.

Ouspensky’s widow then revealed a shocking secret: Gurdjieff was still alive. “Hurry, don’t waste a moment. Go to George Ivanovitch.” It was the first inkling Fremantle had that the mysterious figure who had been Ouspensky’s teacher was still alive. He left at once for Paris and studied with Gurdjieff until Gurdjieff’s death on October 29, 1949.

In 1951, Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s successor, sent Fremantle to Mexico to take charge of the groups, a responsibility he carried for almost thirty years, spending every summer there and making numerous week-long visits during the year.

He returned to Paris in 1962 to work with Madame de Salzmann and stayed until 1966, when he was sent to the United States to help guide the groups in New York, Chicago, and other cities, a task he continued until his death on December 19, 1978. His grave is in Swanbourne, Buckinghamshire, England.

Fremantle’s pupils ranged from beginners to older pupils responsible for transmitting the ideas of Gurdjieff. They wrote to him. What is inner work? What form should it take in the ever changing circumstances of their lives? Some of these letters are included [as “Letters to His Pupils” on pages 73–171 of On Attention] here.

In the 1970s, when Madame de Salzmann asked some of the older people who had worked with Gurdjieff to write about the work, Fremantle began to dictate notes on the aspects he had explored. Read aloud at meetings of his groups, these notes are reproduced [as ten essays on pages 1–72 of On Attention] in this volume.

He never gave advice on personal matters. “One can do so only if one knows all the circumstances,” he said, “and of course that is impossible.” He had another reason as well: his wish that his pupils deepen their own understanding without becoming dependent on him as a “guru.” He had a great distaste for people’s tendency to use others, to enslave them, and to take the role of “master” when life offers so many willing slaves. “We were not given this teaching to feather our nest,” he said. He refused anything that might favor him personally, even a small thing like a ride home on a winter night—particularly if he felt that the one who offered was identified with the outcome of the offer.

His special study was painting. We were encouraged to work with him once a week in a study called “form and color.” Professional artists and amateurs alike, we worked for six or seven hours at a time, usually in complete silence, under his tutelage. Like the Zen painters he often spoke of, we tried to practice our art by feeling the life in the subjects we gazed upon, then putting it on paper as simply and directly as possible. More than a study of painting, this was a study of seeing. We had many exercises of looking at objects, then turning away from them to record only what we had taken in. Any invention, any “filling in” with details not actually seen, was quickly apparent. We came to distinguish between the uniqueness of each object and the stereotypical appearance the mind ascribed to it. Each apple, chair or table—any object—given this form of directed attention revealed itself as quite distinctly unique, a subtle relationship of convex and concave shapes. No inanimate object was seen to be completely devoid of movement, no matter how slow. We saw the “livingness” even of rocks. Under Fremantle’s patient direction, we discovered that there were no smooth lines in what we saw. Even a perfectly round orange was revealed as a complex kingdom of curves and whorls.

When the search centered on the nature of color, form was temporarily banished. We studied the tones and tints of just one color. All the tensions, struggles and clashes of color could be understood by limiting the palette to just one. The feeling evoked in us by the shades of just one were surprisingly stronger than feelings evoked by several colors together. The closer the tones, the stronger the feeling evoked. After a year, he allowed a second color to be used. By then, we understood something of the power that a color contained.

Fremantle hated pretentiousness and never mistook apparent seriousness for real effort. One day during a break in our long, silent art project, as we watched the coffee being set out and the milk and sugar passed by some pupils with a certain false solemnity, Fremantle suddenly exclaimed:

“You know of course about the famous Zen Tea Ceremony? Well, what is it? It is really just people performing the very simple daily activity of brewing and drinking tea. What makes it extraordinary is that they do it in a special way, with attention. If we could drink our coffee with attention, people would come from all over the world to watch us. Maybe they would call it the Coffee Ceremony,” he added, laughing.

He showed us in many practical ways that the possibility of inner development lay in a more unified attention. When the attention is concentrated in a special way through exercises, efforts or prayer, it connects our diverse selves to create a new state in which one may experience a meeting between one’s subjectivity and objective reality. This meeting brings a freedom not previously known.

For some of us, Fremantle’s most frustrating and incomprehensible assertion was that conscious forces were trying to assist us, and indeed anyone who made efforts. He steadfastly refused to elaborate, and though we could not understand, we could not forget.

Once, as he was walking east on 78th Street, one of his pupils described a serious problem. “People don’t realize that when they work, conscious forces come to their aid.” The pupil heard an undeniable inner agreement and also a great protest. What are conscious forces? How can they possibly help me? Turning toward his pupil, he continued: “Conscious forces are trying to help you. You are not alone.”

~ • ~

This introduction is excerpted from Christopher Fremantle’s On Attention: talks, essays and letters to his pupils, edited by Lillian Firestone Boal, Denville, New Jersey: Indications Press, 1993, 171p. This posthumous anthology gathers ten intensely focused contemplative essays on the immanent struggle with attention and excerpts from letters to his pupils.

Copyright © 1993 Indications Press
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000