Stephen Wiltshire's uncanny ability to accurately draw intricate buildings and cityscapes completely from memory has earned him the title of leading architectural artist of the world. He creates his artwork after only brief glimpses of his subject matter. In 2005, for example, following a short helicopter ride over TOKYO, Japan, he drew a stunningly detailed panoramic view of the city on a 10-meter-long canvas. Wiltshire, who is autistic, first came to widespread public notice in February 1987, when he was featured on a BBC documentary called The Foolish Wise Ones, about savant syndrome, a rare condition in which those with various developmental disorders - including autism - have incredible abilities or talents. He was shown on the program drawing ST. PANCRAS STATION, an elaborate Gothic railway hub in central London that he had visited for the first time earlier in the day. Calls and letters poured into the BBC, from viewers seeking to buy his artwork. Wiltshire now has his own gallery in London, where he displays his drawings, accepts commissions, and meets with his many fans. He still appears frequently on television, and in March 2007 he was prominently featured in Beautiful Minds: The Memory Masters, an hour-long program broadcast on the National Geographical Channel.
Speaking in London in May 2007, Ivan Corea of the Autism Awareness Campaign UK said: 'Stephen Wiltshire is a wonderful role model to all young people. Here is a young man, diagnosed with autism, who has overcome barriers to become a leading architectural artist in the world. Stephen Wiltshire has made a difference. I urge the Government to use Stephen Wiltshire as a classic example of success, in education campaigns aimed at young people.' The landmark debate on autism was launched in Westminster Hall on 7th March followed by a question on autism to the Prime Minister in Prime Minister's Questions on 21st March.
Stephen Wiltshire was born on April 24, 1974 in London, England, to parents of West Indian heritage. His father, Colvin, an electrical engineer, was a native of Barbados, and his mother, Geneva, a seamstress, was a native of St. Lucia. As a child Wiltshire experienced severe delays in his development; he avoided interaction with others, and was prone to sudden, uncontrollable tantrums. When Wiltshire was about three years old, he was diagnosed as autistic. Shortly after the family was told the diagnosis, Colvin died in a motorcycle accident, and Geneva was left to raise Wiltshire and his older sister, Annette. When Wiltshire was about five, he was enrolled at the Queensmill School, a primary school in London for children with special needs. There the teaching staff first noticed his interest in drawing. Lorraine Cole, the school's headmistress, told the London Times (September 13, 1993) that initially "[Wiltshire] was totally withdrawn and almost mute. He seemed unaware of other people, made no eye contact, and roamed aimlessly. He would make sudden dashes to other rooms, where he would stare intently at pictures which fascinated him, and then bolt back to his classroom. He would co-operate in a mechanical way when his teacher worked with him individually, but the moment his teacher moved away, he would start his lonely pacing, or find paper and pencil and scribble, totally absorbed, for long periods of time."
The instructors at the Queensmill School encouraged him to speak by temporarily taking away his art supplies so that he would be forced to ask for them. Wiltshire responded by making sounds and eventually uttered his first word - "paper." He learned to speak fully at the age of nine. Wiltshire's early illustrations depicted animals and automobiles; he is still extremely interested in american cars and is said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them. When he was about seven, Wiltshire became fascinated with sketching landmark London buildings. After being shown a book of photos depicting the devastation wrought by EARTHQUAKES, he began to create detailed architectural drawings of equally devastated - but imaginary - cityscapes.
Chris Marris, one of Wiltshire's teachers, took a particular interest in him; he accompanied his young student on drawing excursions and entered his work in children's art competitions, one of which garnered Wiltshire a prize. At about age 10 Wiltshire embarked on an ambitious project called "London Alphabet," a group of pictures depicting landmark structures in London, listed in alphabetical sequence - from Albert Hall, a famed performance venue, to the London Zoo.
In February 1987 Wiltshire, then in a secondary school for special-needs students, appeared in The Foolish Wise Ones. (The show also featured savants with musical and mathematical talents.) During Wiltshire's segment Hugh Casson, a former president of London's Royal Academy of Arts, referred to him as "possibly the best child artist in Britain." Casson introduced Wiltshire and his mother to Margaret Hewson, a literary agent who helped Wiltshire field incoming book deals and soon became a trusted mentor. She helped Wiltshire publish his first book, DRAWINGS (1987), a volume of his early sketches that featured a preface by Casson. Hewson, known for her careful stewardship of her clients' financial interests, made sure a trust was established in Wiltshire's name so that his fees and royalties were used wisely. (Hewson's obituary, published in the London Daily Telegraph [February 9, 2002], lauded her "tireless promotion of his interests" and stated that despite having several other high-profile clients, she "was perhaps best known for championing... Wiltshire.")
Hewson arranged Wiltshire's first trip abroad, to New York City, where he sketched such legendary skyscrapers as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, as part of a feature being prepared by the London-based International Television News. (He is quoted in the London Times article as saying, "I'm going to live in New York [some day]. I've designed my penthouse on Park Avenue.") While in New York Wiltshire met Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist who has written several popular books about unusual neurological conditions. Sacks was fascinated by the young artist, and the two struck up a long friendship; Sacks would ultimately write extensively about Wiltshire. The resulting illustrations from his visit - along with sketches of sites in the London Docklands, Paris, and Edinburgh - formed the basis for his second book, CITIES (1989), which also included some drawings of purely imaginary metropolises.
Wiltshire left school in 1990 and, at the suggestion of his counselors, found part-time work at a bakery, as part of a government-sponsored job-training program. June Southworth, in an article for the London Daily Mail (December 13, 1995), expressed understandable incredulity at this waste of his prodigious talents: "How did he employ his genius there? I did a lovely chocolate cake to take home. And I did some packing and washing down." With Hewson's help, he enrolled in a three-year degree program (followed by a one-year postgraduate course) at the prestigious City and Guilds of London Art School, where he studied drawing and painting. Although he had not mastered crossing the street alone until he was a teen, he often commuted by himself on the London underground-rail system.
At about this time Wiltshire embarked on a drawing tour of Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad, and Moscow, attracting awed crowds wherever he stopped to draw. He was accompanied part of the time by Sacks, who was conducting research for a new book of case histories. (The resulting volume, An Anthropologist on Mars, published in 1995, brought Wiltshire to the attention of an even wider audience.) Wiltshire's third book, FLOATING CITIES (1991), contains the elaborate drawings he made on the tour, along with a foreword by Sacks, who wrote, "Floating Cities represents sixteen-year-old Stephen's artistic response to a 'Grand Tour' of Europe. The architectural refinement of a bygone Venetian Republic is juxtaposed to the solid merchant spirit of the Northern Renaissance as seen in Amsterdam. The barbaric vitality and energy of Moscow is set against that epitome of elegance, Leningrad - so often called 'the Venice of the North.' These drawings testify to an assured draughtsmanship and an ability to convey complex perspective with consummate ease. But more importantly, they reveal his mysterious creative ability to capture the sensibility of a building and that which determines its character and its voice. It is this genius which sets him apart and confers upon him the status of artist. For a child who was once locked within the prison house of his own private world, unable to speak, incapable of responding to others, this thrilling development of language, laughter and art is a miracle."
In a review of Floating Cities for the San Francisco Chronicle (February 16, 1992), Kenneth Baker observed: "The accuracy of proportion and perspective in Wiltshire's ink drawings - not to mention their detail - is amazing. For all their busyness, Wiltshire's drawings are not snarled with obsessive rhythms. He obviously takes pleasure in what he can see and record, and his technique, though consistent, is admirably adapted to specific subjects... Whatever barriers to conventional life Wiltshire's autism [has] put in his path, his eye and hand are enviably open channels." David Gritten wrote for the Los Angeles Times (February 5, 1992), "[The book] illustrates Wiltshire's ability to capture not only a building's detail; he has an innate sense of perspective and also can convey the mood a building evokes. Thus his Kremlin Palace in Moscow looks forbidding and imposing; his St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square with its multicolored cluster of onion domes, seems to spring from a fantasy." Floating Cities reached the top spot on the (London) Sunday Times nonfiction bestseller list.
In 1992 Wiltshire accepted the invitation of a Tokyo-based television company to tour Japan and make drawings of various landmark structures, including the Tokyo metropolitan government building, in Shinjuku, and the Ginza shopping district. He then traveled to America once again, a trip that resulted in the book AMERICAN DREAM (1993), which featured cityscapes of Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, as well as the desert landscape of Arizona. Mary Ambrose wrote for the Montreal Gazette (July 31, 1993), "His paintings of the Arizona desert [establish] him as more than a one-trick pony, and although the coloring is a bit rough, his strong natural sense of composition keeps it together." Wiltshire also included depictions of friends and acquaintances, and some observers took the presence of human figures in his work as a sign that he was developing socially.
While his teachers had long known that Wiltshire liked to sing, the extent of his musical talent was not immediately apparent. Hewson told Anne Barrowclough for the London Daily Mail (September 14, 1993) that she discovered the artist's additional skill while on the trip to Russia: "When we were in Moscow we would throw our own private concerts, usually opera, in our hotel room. One evening Stephen stood on a chair and sang Carmen from memory. He had picked it up from the television and remembered it almost perfectly." He soon began studying with the music teacher Evelyn Preston, who identified Wiltshire as having perfect pitch - the rare ability to identify the pitch of an isolated musical note. Additionally, while autistics often do not understand or recognize human emotions, Wiltshire seemed able to convey the story of the music he was hearing and interpret its sentiments - an ability that fascinated psychologists. The medical community also found Wiltshire's case interesting because autistics rarely exhibit simultaneous skills in more than one field of learning. Linda Pring, a cognitive neuropsychologist at Goldsmith's College, in London, spent a summer evaluating Wiltshire in an effort to discover a relationship between his dual talents. Pring told Nigel Hawkes for the London Times (September 13, 1993), "None of our other savants has more than one talent. In the whole of the scientific literature I have found only one previous example."
Meanwhile, Wiltshire's artwork was being exhibited frequently in venues all over the world. In 2001 he appeared in another BBC documentary, Fragments of Genius, for which he was filmed flying over London aboard a helicopter and subsequently completing a detailed and perfectly scaled aerial illustration of a four-square-mile area within three hours; his drawing included 12 historic landmarks and 200 other structures. In late 2003 the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham, England, held the first major retrospective of Wiltshire's works, spanning a period of 20 years; more than 30,000 visitors attended the exhibit, shattering the gallery's attendance records. Wiltshire took on his largest project to date in May 2005, when he returned to Tokyo to make a panoramic drawing - the largest of his career - of the city. Two months later he drew a similarly detailed picture of ROME, including the Vatican and St. Peter's Cathedral, entirely from memory. In December, after a 20-minute helicopter ride, Wiltshire spent a week making a 10-meter-long drawing of HONG KONG's Victoria Harbour and the surrounding urban scene. (He dedicated the work as a Christmas present to the city's residents.)
In January 2006 it was announced that Wiltshire was being named by Queen Elizabeth II as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of his services to the art world. (No specific mention of his disability was made in the citation.) "It's an absolute honour," his sister, Annette, told Geoffrey Wansell for the London Daily Mail (January 3, 2006). "It brought tears to my mum's eyes and to mine, because we've all worked so hard for Stephen." Later that year, with the encouragement of Annette and her husband, Zoltan, Wiltshire founded his own permanent art gallery, in London's Royal Opera Arcade, an upscale shopping area.
Many observers have noted that Wiltshire, contrary to the accepted stereotype of autistic people, has an engaging personality and a strong sense of humor. He sometimes performs impromptu, but wickedly accurate imitations of such singers as Tom Jones. He currently resides in Maida Vale, West London with his mother. He reportedly does not have a girlfriend, although he admits to a preference for blondes, most notably the actress Jennie Garth from the television series Beverly Hills 90210.
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