Esmond Samuel de Beer was born in Dunedin on 15 September 1895, the second son and fourth child of Isidore Samuel de Beer and his wife, Emily Hallenstein. His father became a director of Hallenstein Brothers. This company, founded by his maternal grandfather, Bendix Hallenstein, provided Esmond and his sisters with a life free from financial constraints. In 1910 Isidore de Beer was appointed to run Hallensteins’ office in London, where the family lived until 1912. Although of Jewish ancestry, the de Beers were not religious observants.
Esmond seemed destined to become a scholar. In Dunedin he had been surrounded by books at home, and at the home of his uncle, Willi Fels, there were collections of books and artefacts. He was educated at the school attached to Selwyn College, where he had access to the Shoults Collection of early books and incunabula. In London Esmond and his brother Bendix attended Mill Hill School. In 1914 Esmond read history at New College, Oxford, under Sir Charles Firth, a seventeenth century specialist who influenced his subsequent editorial career by his insistence on compendious knowledge of all aspects of a period.
He and his brother enlisted during the First World War; Bendix was killed in Belgium in 1917 but Esmond was stationed at the relatively quiet north-west frontier in India. After the war he visited Australia and New Zealand before returning to England in 1920. With a war degree from Oxford (awarded to those whose study was incomplete because of war service) he completed an MA at the University of London in 1923.
Until 1925 de Beer studied at University College, London, then worked for Firth for a time. In 1931 he was invited by the Clarendon Press to edit John Evelyn's diary. The six volumes published in 1955 met with immediate acclaim; both the commentary and the 600-page index are regarded as exemplary. In 1956 he embarked on the arguably more challenging task of preparing an edition of the correspondence of John Locke. The first two volumes were published in 1976, the eighth in 1989. The index remained unfinished, but Esmond was 94 and his eyesight failing; he was able to oversee only part of its production. Both editions were carried through without research assistance.
During the Second World War de Beer ran almost single-handedly the Historical Association, London, and the Institute of Historical Research when their staffs were absent on war service. He was president of the Hakluyt Society, and extensively subsidised its publication of J. C. Beaglehole’s edition of James Cook’s journals. He served as vice president of the Historical Association and as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, was on the committee of the London Library, and became a fellow of the British Academy in 1965 and of University College, London, in 1967. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Oxford, Durham and Otago.
Esmond de Beer and his sisters, Mary and Dora, never married. After their parents died (Emily in 1930, Isidore in 1934) they lived together in London. The sisters had previously travelled between London, Europe and New Zealand. They enjoyed the outdoors. Dora was a mountaineer who made many climbs in the Southern Alps, the Swiss Alps and, in 1938, Yunan, China. Esmond and Mary were pedestrians – indefatigable walkers and trampers. All three regularly holidayed on the Hebridean island of Raasay.
The de Beers were among the most important benefactors of Dunedin’s cultural institutions. Esmond wrote, ‘My sisters and I have always thought of Dunedin as our ‘‘home’’, our essential background, and have wanted to do what we could towards the furtherance of its learning and culture’. All three were collectors: Esmond’s rare books were a scholar’s tool; Dora had a passion for rugs and textiles, often gathered on her travels; Mary loved poetry; all appreciated the visual arts. Many gifts to institutions were in the name of all three.
The most significant benefaction was to the University of Otago Library. It received the bulk of Esmond’s collections of rare books by and about Evelyn and Locke, as well as the Iolo Williams collection of eighteenth century poetry and funds for its development. The gifts amount to some 3,000 volumes; there were also gifts of other books. In 1954 he assisted the Otago Museum to obtain part of the collection of portraits and objets d’art belonging to his aunt, Agnes Barden. In the 1960s he gave money and more objects, including a terracotta relief attributed to Giovanni della Robbia. In 1963 he was the prime mover behind the establishment of a research and publication fund. Around this time, too, with his sisters and their cousin Charles Brasch, he was instrumental in establishing the Frances Hodgkins, Robert Burns and Mozart fellowships at the University of Otago. Their endowments are now worth more than a million dollars. In 1982 and 1984 the museum received further ceramics, textiles and objets d’art.
The stature of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery was transformed by the de Beers' gifts and Esmond's valuable advice about collecting. It may have been Brasch who suggested, in 1963, that de Beer be asked to report on its holdings. As a result, the gallery’s collecting policies were transformed, and de Beer began to collect with the express purpose of filling gaps in its collections. He and his sisters presented a good quattrocento madonna by Zanobi Machiavelli in 1973, and a Stuart portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger in 1974. In 1982 170 works arrived: the most important gift the gallery ever received. It included significant paintings by outstanding artists, notably Claude Monet’s ‘La débâcle’ and Claude Lorrain’s ‘Hagar and the angel’.
Esmond de Beer was of solid build and for a large part of his life sported a trim moustache. He had a kindly, perhaps shy appearance, was undemonstrative though not unemotional, quiet, slow of speech with a rather formal demeanour. He held strong convictions, had great determination and a passion for factual accuracy and economy of expression. Following the deaths of Mary in 1981 and Dora in 1982, he dispersed much of his collection of books and paintings and moved first to a flat in London, then to a nursing home in Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire. He died there on 3 October 1990, aged 95. An atheist, he had directed that his body be cremated without ceremony.