Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Louise Berta Dyer (1884–1962)

by Jim Davidson

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Louise Dyer, c.1920

Louise Dyer, c.1920

Louise Berta Mosson Hanson Dyer (1884-1962), patron of the arts and music publisher, was born on 19 July 1884 in Melbourne, daughter of Louis Lawrence Smith and his second wife Marion Jane, née Higgins. In 1891 she began attending Presbyterian Ladies' College, East Melbourne, where her musical aptitude soon emerged. A talented pianist, she won the gold medal of the Royal College of Music, London, and afterwards went to Edinburgh to continue her musical studies.

Three years after returning, Louise married, on 27 December 1911, 54-year-old James Dyer, who as a young man had sung in the Liedertafel. He was now Australasian manager of Messrs Michael Nairn & Co. of Kirkcaldy, Scotland: contemporary gossip columnists referred to him as 'Jimmy Dyer, the linoleum king'. Louise's immediate sphere of social activity became the P.L.C. Old Girls' Association, which she served first as secretary and then as president in two double terms, 1919-21 and 1924-26.

After moving in 1922 from Hawthorn to Kinnoul, Toorak, Louise Dyer held regular divertissements. The prime mover in the foundation of the British Music Society of Victoria in 1921, she was in touch with the best performers offering, and paid them handsomely. Programmes were designed by leading artists, the hostess rising to the occasion with gorgeous dressing; flamboyance united the imperious and Bohemian aspects of her personality. She was also serious: before long she was mounting a production of Gustav Holst's Savitri and the Lully-Molière Le Mariage Forcé. Active in the Alliance Française, she extended her interest in literature to works being written around her: she underwrote the publication in book form of Shaw Neilson's Ballad and Lyrical Poems (1923) and, with characteristic energy, organized a deputation to the prime minister which sought an increase in the funding of literary pensions.

The Dyers were bound eventually to move to Europe: on a previous departure Louise told the press of the necessity to go to England to procure music unavailable in Australia. Shortly after donating £10,000 to encourage the establishment of a permanent orchestra, they left Melbourne for England in April 1927 and a year later settled in Paris. There, after an initial period taking in galleries and concerts, she decided to complement the Lully edition then in progress by publishing a similar one of the music of Couperin le Grand, whose bicentenary was approaching. Thus was born the 'Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre', the homage to her homeland spelt out in a photograph of tail feathers from a lyre-bird that adorned the front endpapers.

When the twelve volumes of the Couperin edition appeared in 1933, they created a sensation: material which had existed hitherto only in manuscript form, or in inaccurate nineteenth century editions, suddenly became available as the finest printed music most people had ever seen, impeccably edited. The edition was intended to be as permanent as possible, 'traversing time and space', as Louise wrote in her introduction; and to this end the best engravers and printers in Paris were set to work with the finest hand-made papers. By 1940, some forty volumes had been printed, including collections of sonatas by Purcell and Blow and the Polyphonic Music of the XIIIth Century (bound in Australian blackwood). Gramophone recordings were undertaken initially as Mrs Dyer's response to the earnest theorizing of a young musicologist, who was suddenly provided with the facilities to demonstrate his arguments about performance; but as the catalogue grew, the recordings became the means by which the Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre became best known.

In the early long-playing era Lyre-Bird was the first to record the Monteverdi Vespers, Handel operas, the larger stage works of Purcell, and the complete ordres of Couperin; also works by Schönberg, Milhaud and Stravinsky. Such discs were often notable for the vivacity and freshness of the performance, often a direct result of Louise Dyer contacting the artists involved immediately after a particularly impressive radio broadcast. The publishing programme continued, though now overshadowed; as before, it catered for the needs of institutions and accredited scholars rather than the tastes of collectors.

Louise Dyer, along with the musicians Nadia Boulanger and Wanda Landowska, was a key figure in the revival of the serious performance of Baroque music in recent times: in consequence the French government appointed her a chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1934, with promotion to officier of that order in 1957. Yet although she moved effortlessly in Parisian musical and social circles, Louise Dyer's attachment to Australia, while attenuated, was unassailable. The Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre published works by Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Margaret Sutherland; Louise tried to interest Gallimard in publishing a translation of Furphy; and, at the moment of her greatest triumph, the appearance of the Couperin edition, she wrote of the presentation copy to the Public Library of Victoria, 'Number One went to the President of the French Republic; Number Two goes to my own homeland library'. She returned to Melbourne frequently, most notably to be lady mayoress to her brother (Sir) Harold Gengoult Smith in 1932.

James Dyer died in January 1938. On 6 April 1939 at Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England, Louise married 30-year-old Joseph Birch Hanson, an Englishman who had studied at the universities of Melbourne and Paris. They left Paris on the outbreak of war; Hanson attended Balliol College, Oxford, until August 1945. Finding post-war conditions in Paris untenable, they moved to Monaco, where they carried on their music publishing business. Louise Hanson-Dyer died in hospital at Monaco on 9 November 1962; her ashes were brought back to Melbourne general cemetery. The greater part of her Australian estate, valued in Victoria for probate at £241,380, was bequeathed to the University of Melbourne. The principal beneficiary of her estate in Europe was her husband, who carried on the work of l'Oiseau-Lyre; his second wife Margarita continued to run the business until 1996.

Portraits of Louise by Tom Roberts and W. B. McInnes, are in the National Gallery of Victoria and at P.L.C.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • J. S. Neilson, The Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson (Canb, 1977)
  • Record Society, Monthly Review, July 1964
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 17 Nov 1962, p 10
  • Kate Baker collection (National Library of Australia)
  • P. Serle papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jim Davidson, 'Dyer, Louise Berta (1884–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Louise Dyer, c.1920

Louise Dyer, c.1920

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Smith, Louise Berta
  • Hanson-Dyer, Louise Berta

19 July, 1884
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


9 November, 1962 (aged 78)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations