John Dronsfield was born in Lancashire and, although he studied briefly at the Manchester School of Art, was mainly self-taught. From 1923 until 1939 he worked in advertising and theatre design in London, continuing with stage-set design on his arrival in Cape Town in 1939. Dronsfield’s art is very much the product of the lean and hungry decades between the two world wars in England. His early focus on the impoverished working classes of the north of England was transferred to South Africa’s poor. In 1942 he publishes Non-Europeans Only, a series of line drawings of the coloured community in Cape Town. While many of his South African artist contemporaries set themselves the pleasanter tasks of capturing effects of light on landscape and exploring formal effects in studio paintings and still lifes, Dronsfield’s mordant eye sought out cracks in peeling walls, drains, garbage and dirty interiors and their inhabitants. With passionate pen and brush he outlined the effects of hunger, gruelling physical labour, and drunkenness, in their deep-set eyes, distorted features and bodies.
This painting shows Dronsfield’s overriding concern with line and stark modelling more than colour. We do not know what comedy is being enacted or where; the background is greenish and spaceless. The onlookers are chance loiterers, aimless and thin, their limbs and bodies self-contained, imparting a sense of their loneliness. The high colour of their cheeks imparts an artificial, almost caricatured, puppet-like quality not the glow of health. There is no hint of fashion in their squashed hats, in the dull reds, greens, blues and browns of their shapeless clothing. Pictures like this have earned Dronsfield a unique place in South African art. His compassionate and indignant eye and hand recorded the habits, pastimes and miseries of the urban poor, the abiding ‘slumscape’ not only of Cape Town 40 years ago but of all South African cities today.