State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


Lina Bryans, artist. [Portrait of Tristan Buesst, Esquire]. 1960. Oil painting. H89.207. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Wallace Kirsop
Tristan Buesst, First President of the Friends of the La Trobe Library

Although Geoff Serle had the decisive role in the successful creation of the Friends of the La Trobe Library more than four decades ago, he was aided by a dedicated group of collectors and historians anxious to promote and to support the then recently completed Australiana wing of the State Library of Victoria. Foremost among them was Tristan Noël Marchand Buesst (1894–1982), who served as President of the provisional committee in 1966 and then of the properly constituted body until he stepped down at the sixth annual general meeting on 10 April 1972. For nearly six years, therefore, Buesst was the diligent and watchful head of an organization that achieved a great deal in helping to build up the Library's collections and to make them the focus of serious scholarly endeavour. Despite the fact that a selection of his own papers came to the Library,1 the first President has not received the notice he deserves for a number of reasons.
A brief presentation cannot hope to deal adequately with a quite complex career that was characteristic of a more leisurely and cultivated time. As a rank-and-file member of the Friends I was essentially an observer from afar, but late in 1966 I was asked by Serle to help out in the provisional committee's secretarial work while he was absent from Melbourne. It was in this way that I attended a working session at the Buesst apartment in Amesbury House, Domain Road, South Yarra, with the President and Serle, as well as functioning as acting Secretary when the committee first met on 29 November. Amesbury House brought the revelation that Melbourne, to which I was then still a relative newcomer, did have flats as spacious and comfortable for collectors as those I had occasionally visited in Paris in the 1950s. In other words the Buessts lived in a style that was entirely consonant with that of people of their tastes and means in the Northern Hemisphere. The fact would hardly need commentary if it were not for the lack of subtlety and sensitivity that seems to characterize much of what passes in the new millennium for analysis of earlier periods of Australian social history.
Tristan Buesst belonged to a family that had lived in the Midlands for several centuries. It was his father, William Augustine Büsst (1846–1935), who brought some of the manufacturing flair of that part of England to Melbourne and established a prosperous base that enabled his three sons to follow their own interests in life. Tristan was to chair the family company, but his older brothers Aylmer Wilhelmy (1883–1970) and Victor Augustine (1885–1960), after musical studies in Belgium and Germany before the First World War, pursued distinguished careers as composers and conductors in Britain.2 With German and Belgian sisters-in-law, the youngest brother was firmly set in the cosmopolitan
context that was familiar to many Australians long before the multiculturalism of recent decades. Tristan's marriage in 1933 to Marie Mackinnon, the daughter of that interesting political figure Donald Mackinnon3 and the niece of Rupert Bunny, simply reinforced an outward-looking inclination.
Some aspects of Tristan Buesst's early life were quite standard: he went from Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he took the Junior Public and Senior Public examinations in 1911 and 1913, to Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in 1914. After doing two years of Arts and Law subjects he left at the end of November 1915 for England, where he hoped to enlist in the British army and, eventually, to study at Oxford. Both ambitions were realized. After training he was gazetted a second lieutenant and posted to the 25th Middlesex Regiment on 11 July 1916, serving eighteen months on the Western Front. Immediately after the war he continued his studies in Law at New College, Oxford, graduating B.A. and in due course M.A.4 In 1921 and 1922 he was working in the British Clearing Office in Berlin dealing with reparations. Back in Melbourne in 1923 and 1924 he completed his LL.B. at the University. Then, in 1925, he was admitted by the Supreme Court of Victoria as a barrister and solicitor. However, an apprenticeship interrupted by war in the way that affected most of Buesst's contemporaries was not to lead to a conventional existence as a practitioner.
Although Tristan Buesst was Associate to Judge L. O. Lukin in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court between 1928 and 1930, he was already developing some of the outside interests that dominated his later years. He was Secretary of the Victorian branch of the Oxford Society and kept up contacts with friends made at New College, notably Sir Guy Thorold (1898–1970), who, at the height of his civil service career, was Head of the Treasury Delegation and Economic Minister in the Washington Embassy, as well as being the U.K. Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund from 1957 to 1959. The opening onto public, and especially international affairs was not accidental. In 1924 and 1925 Buesst was a member, along with R. G. Menzies, W. S. Kent-Hughes and Keith Officer, of the Loquor Club, ‘a Society for the occasional discussion of topics of interest to the cultural and the thoughtful’. He attended international meetings and conferences: Kyoto, 1929; Copenhagen and Shanghai in 1931 (travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express with a disliked Peter Fleming, whose One's Company of 1934 has echoes of the encounter);5 the Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1934. Apart from a contribution to The Melburnian in 1913, Buesst's published work — over thirty items — for the period prior to the Second World War fell in the decade after 1928. The focus was often international affairs, and the chosen vehicles for these letters, reviews and articles were the Argus, the Australian Quarterly, Stead's Review, The Home, Pacific Affairs and The Austral-Asiatic Bulletin.6
The Second World War brought another hiatus, during which Buesst, as a Major now, was working for Australian Army Intelligence between 1940 and 1944. With the coming of peace he resumed writing on mostly political topics in journals like Australian Outlook and the Australian Quarterly.7 A short book of 1949, Security Problems in the Pacific Region,8
written in collaboration with W. Macmahon Ball and Gerald Packer, indicates some of his preoccupations. So too, in a different register, did his monograph of 1948 for Ure Smith — and in collaboration with Clive Turnbull, another member of the Friends' provisional committee — on The Art of Rupert Bunny.9 That Buesst, as a senior figure in Melbourne, should be both Federal President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs from 1951 to 1955 and President of the National Gallery Society of Victoria between 1953 and 1955 flows naturally from openly declared commitments. One could say the same of his role in the Friends, given the fact that his Who's Who in Australia entry for 1959 lists his recreations as ‘books, royal tennis’. Other editions of the same reference work mention ‘music’ and ‘bridge’.
As far as the books were concerned, this was no mere polite gesture of conformity with conventions. The papers hold a correspondence with Sir John Ferguson going back to 1945.10 It is not clear that the two men ever met — Melbourne and Sydney were further apart in those days! — but Buesst was anxious to pass on details of items from his library that were apparently missing from the Bibliography of Australia. The notes accompanying the foreign-language Australiana that Buesst presented to the La Trobe Library in December 1974 indicate clearly that the collector paid close attention to what he bought and used the standard bibliographies.11 At the same time he was taking advantage of his knowledge of European languages and of that ‘polyglot edge’ that educated Australians of his generation enjoyed.
Cosmopolitan tastes and accomplishments did not exclude a secure sense of Australianness, of course. In the typescript of the war diary, reduced and edited by Buesst from the pencilled MSS he kept at the front, there is an admission on 2 September 1916, early in the French period:
For if I had come to think of England as my spiritual home, Australia is certainly — I recognise this now — the home of my heart.12
The ambivalence was not uncommon, and indeed perfectly understandable. It certainly allowed Tristan Buesst to become a collector of Australiana, another characteristic of the post-Mitchell era.
The curiosity extended to works of art, a field in which he was both a collector and a patron of leading practitioners of the Arthur Boyd generation. The Friends' annual report for 1969 noted that the President had ‘made an important gift to the La Trobe collection’, to wit Harden Melville's Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands (London, 1849 – Ferguson no. 5109). At the committee meeting on 8 June 1970 Buesst ‘announced that he had given a set of three S. T Gill lithographs, the Kangaroo Hunt, to the La Trobe Library through the Friends'. In the following year, at the meeting on 15 March,
The President intimated that he would like to stay in office for one more year, in order to be present when the first purchases are made under the T. N. M. Buesst Fund for historical pictures.
When Buesst stepped down at the annual general meeting on 10 April 1972, his successor as President, Geoff Serle,
paid a tribute to Mr. Buesst who, adding to his long succession of services to the community, had guided the Friends during the first five years of the Society. He mentioned the Tristan Buesst Fund, established in 1971, for the acquisition of historical pictures for the Library, and he reported that the first purchase had been made — the picture would be reproduced in the forthcoming issue of the Journal.13
The gifts did not stop there. On 29 November it was reported that, apart from six paintings — by W. Tibbits, A. F. Gregory, U. Catani and G. G. McCrae — purchased through the Fund, Tristan Buesst had presented nine chromo-lithographs of Nicholas Chevalier. In view of the $210,000 recorded as being in the T. Buesst Bequest fund at 30 June 2006,14 it is clear that the Library has continued to profit from the first President's generosity.
The final expression of Tristan Buesst's munificence came in the foreign-language Australiana made over to the Library at the end of 1974. As recent sale prices have demonstrated, the La Trobe collection was extremely lucky to acquire a substantial addition to its holdings of original works in European languages — French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese — and of Continental translations of English-language items from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Apart from some of the celebrated imaginary voyages with Australian’ destinations — Foigny, Tyssot de Patot, Vairasse d'Allais and ‘Robertson’ in editions dated 1692, ‘1710’, 1716 and 1767 respectively — there are standard accounts of exploration and translations of First Fleet classics in both French and German. The roll-call of authors is an impressive one, including as it does Jacques Arago, Barrington, Blosseville, Bougainville, Rossel–D'Entrecasteaux (but without the Atlas), Dillon, Dumont d'Urville, Flinders, Freycinet, Hunter, Labillardière, La Pérouse, Thomas Mitchell, Oxley, Péron, Phillip, Tench and White. Even when the copies or sets are duplicates, variants of some significance (e.g. fine paper as against ordinary paper) ensure that the new material has great value for serious research. All in all, this has to be counted as one of the most important gifts to the Library in the twentieth century.
The Library's friends and supporters in the nineteenth century, the ‘cultural evangelists’ of Redmond Barry's generation, have rightly been receiving considerable attention in recent decades. However, their twentieth-century successors have been largely forgotten. It would be good if Tristan Buesst's papers and other sources could be put to use to explore the careers, both in Australia and in Europe, of three talented brothers who have been unjustly neglected.


MS 10620: Tristan N. M. Buesst papers, boxes 1490–1496; MS 9839: ‘War Diary of Tristan Buesst France and Flanders September 1916 – March 1918’, MS B 104.


See Warren Bebbington, ed., The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 84. On Aylmer see also the entries in Who Was Who, 1961–1970 and in H. J. Gibbney & Ann G. Smith, comp. & ed., A Biographical Register 1788–1939, I, p. 95.


See Geoff Serle's article in Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 10, pp. 312–315.


I am grateful to Jennifer Thorp, Archivist, New College, for details of his record there.


See MS 10620: 1490/4 (a), Section II/7 — letter to Guy Thorold of 17 June 1935. See also Peter Fleming, One's Company, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1956 (reprint 1983), pp. 36, 51–52.


See MS 10620: 1493/5 (v) — ‘Items submitted by Tristan Buesst for publication, 1913 and 1928–1939’.


See MS 10620: 1494/1 (vi) — ‘Items submitted by Tristan Buesst for publication, 1945–1957’.


Melbourne, Robertson and Mullens, 77pp.


See Nancy D. H. Underhill, Making Australian Art 1916–49: Sydney Ure Smith Patron and Publisher, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 299.


See MS 10620: 1491/1 (b), Section IV/31–62. The last exchange is dated 1963.


See * LTB 016.9 B86C: bound typescript Tristan Buesst Collection of Foreign Language Australiana, accompanied by a box of MS and typescript notes. Buesst's recognition of Ferguson's role appears in the minutes of the Friends' committee meeting on 2 June 1969: ‘The President mentioned the recent death of Sir John Ferguson and regretted the absence of adequate obituary articles in the Press.’


MS 9839, MS B 104, p. 10.


See La Trobe Library Journal, No. 9, April 1972, pp. 23–24.


Library Board of Victoria Annual Report 2005–06, p. 87.