Child Genius

Coming of age for art worlds child genius
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Coming of age for art world's child genius

Ask most fine arts graduates about the meaning of their analysis will have you groping for a black leather couch. Ask Stephen Wiltshire and he will look at you blankly: charcoal is for drawing, oils are for painting and there the scrutiny ends. Wiltshire is 24. He is also the world's most famous artistic autistic savant.

He came to public attention through a remarkable QED documentary for the BBC in 1987 when he was 13. Despite having huge difficulties with language and communication he had artistic talent that prompted the architect Sir Hugh Casson to herald him 'the best child in Britain.'

Wiltshire has an astounding ability to reproduce on paper the most complex architectural structures. The highly detailed drawings are often executed after he has spent only a few seconds scanning a building. He can draw whole cityscapes after the merest glance and reproduce faithfully every nook and cranny.

Not long after he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, his Barbados-born father was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving his mother, from St Lucia, to bring up Wiltshire and his sister. For a long time, he would not talk. As a boy, he refused to look anyone in the eye, had no interest in learning to read or write and would throw tantrums if anyone tried to touch him. But through his art, he has opened up a channel of communication.

The publicity that came on the back of the documentary was phenomenal. Trips to New York, Venice and Moscow followed, giving him a chance to exercise his meticulous eye on some of the world's finest architecture. He has published four books of his work and recently finished a degree course in drawing and painting at City and Guilds London Art School, the first autism sufferer to do so. The late Sir Robert Philipson, a former president of the Royal Scottish Academy, said to him: 'I have never stood so much in awe of a marvellous, mysterious gift,'

Wiltshire has grown up. He still lives with his mother and sister in west London. His art has improved dramatically with the input from his tutors and his talents have expanded to oil painting. John Travolta, his favourite film star, is a recurring subject. He once drew a panoramic view of Greenwich when the Royal Naval College was partially obscured by a marquee. The resultant painting showed every detail of the building's architecture without the marquess, because he had seen it fleetingly years before.

His only exhibition in Britain this year will be a low-key affair at the Phoenix Gallery in Aboyne. The work on display includes pictures from his third book, Floating Cities, and some large oil paintings as well as his trademark cityscapes. Wiltshire's favourite painting will also be there: an American street scene featuring yellow taxis and skyscrapers seen through a car window. By a happy twist, the street's name is Wiltshire Boulevard.

Pat Wilkinson, the gallery manager, say: 'We are extremely lucky to have this exhibition. His work is amazing. Some of the oil paintings just take your breath away.' Wiltshire will not be attending. He doesn't like the countryside and feels uncomfortable in open spaces. The rolling hills of Aberdeenshire could cause him problems.

For Scotland, it is a rare opportunity to witness the work of someone who suffers from what is sometimes called mind blindness. But if his mind is blind, the art provides a window into an astonishing world.


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