BERNARD CHEESE WAS A QUIET OBSERVER of everyday life. Sketching among the rocky inlets of the Pembrokeshire coast, exploring the north Yorkshire moors and looking out over at the vineyards of Provence, he expressed a fascination with landscape and the patterns imposed by man onto nature. A keen draughtsman, he sought out interesting vernacular architecture as subjects for his lively watercolours and lithographs. He painted thatched farmhouses in Essex, fishermen’s cottages nestled between quay and hillside at Staithes, and the sun-baked medieval hill town of Le Barroux in southern France. But Cheese was also a storyteller. Look closely at his prints and observe a community that goes about its daily business. Women chatter at a street corner, children play games, farmers tend their livestock and seafarers repair their vessels.
Whether drawing cyclists wending their way through Provencal vineyards at Les Hauts, fishermen near Holy Island landing their catch in a race against the incoming tide, or a family taking shelter beneath ancient topiary at Levens Hall, Cheese was habitually out and about with sketchbook in hand, observing and recording. His gloriously playful lithographs and watercolours attest to a genuine curiosity in the world around him, an interest that he conveyed with more than a touch of mischievousness and gentle good humour.
Cheese was born in Sydenham, southeast London on 20 January 1925 to Rose and Gordon Cheese, a black cab driver. He trained at nearby Beckenham School of Art before joining the army as a private. He recalled during his service painting maple leaves on the roofs of Canadian jeeps so that they would be recognised from above, and at the end of the war was in Berlin. After demobilisation, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art, London (1947-50) where he met life-long friend John Roberts. There, Cheese’s enthusiasm for lithography was fired by the newly appointed instructor Edwin La Dell. Together with master-printer George Devenish, La Dell had set up a lithographic workshop modelled on Parisian ateliers. La Dell encouraged Cheese to go out into the streets to record London life; to the markets, public houses and parks, to mingle with the crowd, sketchbook in hand, and observe. Throughout a career that spanned some eight decades, Cheese would become an enthusiastic observer of British society.
At the Royal College, Cheese met fellow student Sheila Robinson, the Nottinghamshire-born printmaker and illustrator. They married in 1951 and set up home in Beaufort Street, Chelsea. Both artists worked on Festival of Britain murals alongside their art-school tutor and close friend Edward Bawden. Their first child Chloe, now a celebrated printmaker and illustrator herself, was born in 1952. Bawden introduced the couple to Great Bardfield in Essex. In 1953, the young family moved to Bardfield End Green at Thaxted where their son Benjamin was born the following year. Cheese established his studio at a former fish and chip shop in Great Bardfield. Both he and his wife taught printmaking at London art schools: Cheese at St Martin’s School of Art 1950-68 and Robinson at the Royal College.
With its picturesque village stores, thatched cottages and only a handful of cars and tractors chugging to and fro, Great Bardfield was a quintessentially English village, a thriving community with butcher, ironmonger, grocer and, remarkably, a close gathering of artists who, by design or happy coincidence, lived and worked in or around village. Bernard and Sheila Cheese would soon enjoy their friendship and support, contributing to regular ‘open house’ exhibitions. Among their artist-neighbours were John Aldridge, Charlotte and Edward Bawden, Kate and George Chapman, Duffy and Michael and Rothenstein, Walter Hoyle, and the textile designer Marianne Straub.
In 1957, Bernard and Sheila Cheese separated. The following year they were divorced. Sheila moved into Great Bardfield with the children while continuing to teach at the Royal College. Bernard relocated to nearby Stisted where he settled with his new wife, a former student Brenda Latham Brown. They had two daughters Joanna and Sarah. For a studio, Cheese rented the Sunday school room next to the church. The 1950s and 1960s saw great innovation and diversity in British printmaking. Lithography had become the favoured medium of the younger generation, and there were much improved opportunities to publish and exhibit prints. As prints became larger and more colourful, Cheese explored lithography for its own sake. A print was for him not just a window on to the world, but an object in itself. He used the whole picture surface, right up to the deckled edge of the paper. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never abandoned observation from life but rather, with nature as his starting point, he investigated new motifs and techniques. Cheese was now exhibiting as far afield as Beijing (1956), Stockholm (1960), Washington DC (1962) and New York City (1968).
A regular exhibitor of fine art prints, Cheese also worked on commissions for poster designs and illustration. In 1951, London Transport commissioned the first of several posters, Pantomimes and Circuses. In 1953, Cheese contributed The Drum Major to ‘Coronation Lithographs’, a suite of prints by RCA staff, students and eminent artists for a celebratory exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. The brewers Guinness – seeking to establish a market for unsigned lithographs for display in public houses – commissioned A Fisherman’s Story in 1956. Choosing his subject from the Guinness Book of Records, Cheese shows a contented fisherman on a bar stool, arms outstretched, a half-empty glass of ale in one hand, pipe in the other, boasting of his day’s catch to the barman and all within earshot. In 1964 his Shakespeare’s Kings formed part of a folio of prints published by the Royal College to commemorate the Bard’s quarto-centenary. Cheese regularly undertook commissions for clients such as A&C Black, the BBC and P&O Cruises.
After leaving St Martin’s, Cheese was appointed Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths’ College 1970-78 and taught part-time at Central School of Art, London 1980-89. He and Brenda separated in 1988 and were divorced in 1992. Cheese initially moved to Earls Colne before settling in Nayland, north of Colchester.
Cheese remained faithful to lithography throughout his long career. For subjects, he was constantly drawn to the sea. Not a dark cruel sea that claims lives, but one that is bountiful and a provider of livelihoods. In Attaching the Winch (1957), a fisherman wades out to his boat against a strong north-westerly wind, while in a later lithograph Cheese depicts a boatman mooring his two vessels Kindly Light and Love Divine (1998). Delightfully idiosyncratic still life arrangements such Trout on a Plate and Big Plate of Prawns (1995), portray the sea’s culinary bounty. Looking down into the harbour at Staithes (1997), Cheese was drawn to the patterns made by the web of ropes mooring rowboats to the jetty. Like the seagulls that observe the town from lofty chimneys, the artist takes a high vantage point to survey a patterned townscape of rooftops, chimneys, windows, clouds, bricks and slate. Ornamental street furniture, cast iron lampposts, reflected light and cast shadows invariably appealed to his sense of design. Though Cheese’s work often comes across as whimsical, his seemingly light-hearted touch is rooted in sound draughtsmanship and a well-structured composition.
In later years Cheese continued to travel in search of new material for lithographs that he printed in small editions at his home studio. There were numerous invitations to stage solo exhibitions. His works were acquired by many important collections, from the V&A and HM The Queen to MOMA and New York Public Library. I was pleased to stage a retrospective exhibition of his prints and assemble over one hundred representative lithographs and watercolours for the permanent collection of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Museum and Galleries. It is the largest public collection of his works. However, accolades were long overdue.
Bernard Cheese was fortunate to have witnessed a renewed interest in the British figurative artists who had come to the fore during the 1950s. He was not elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers until 1988, over forty years after he made his first print. He died in Colchester on 15 March 2013 aged 88. An indefatigable printmaker and respected educator with nearly forty years service to higher education, Cheese made a significant contribution to fine art lithography in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century, yet his influence has still not properly been recognised.
Aberystwyth, updated 2018
Robert Meyrick. Bernard Cheese at 80. Catalogue essay. (Saffron Walden: Fry Art Gallery, 2005)
Robert Meyrick. Bon Appétit!: Lithographs and Watercolours by Bernard Cheese.
Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries, 10 December 2001 – 18 January 2002