Max Ballard profiles Stephen Wiltshire, the autistic teenager whose new book has excited the art world. Genius, they say, comes in all shapes and sizes. One of the most unexpected and celebrated artists to have emerged during the past few years who can legitimately claim to be a genius is an autistic black boy by the name of Stephen Wiltshire.
Wiltshire became something of a celebrity after his remarkable talent for seeing images and then reproducing them on paper almost instantaneously was brought to public attention in 1987 when he was featured in a BBC2 QED documentary entitled The Foolish Wise Ones.
After the programme the BBC switchboard was jammed with more than 700 viewers asking for original prints of Wiltshire's work such was the impression the autistic boy made on the general public of Britain.
Wiltshire was 12 years old then and described as probably the best child artist in the country. He has a new book out at the moment, his fourth, entitled American Dreams and his drawings were on display in London last week. And even at 18, he is still a precocious talent.
When Wiltshire first burst on to the scene, it was thought he would go the same way as another autistic child called Nadia who appeared in a book by Lorna Selfe. Nadia was a gifted autistic child who drew with wonderful fluency but lost interest in drawing when she learned to speak and read. Most autistic children lose their ability as they grow older and their other senses develop, but in Wiltshire's case, his ability to draw has flourished, which is why he is seen as a major artist today.
Autism was once confused as a form of mental illness but was discovered to be quite distinct around 1940. Autism means that the brain does not develop normally and implies both perceptual and linguistic problems as well as an inability to form relationships with other people. These problems were apparent in Wiltshire but the recent fame he has received from his drawings has helped him to come out of his shell. Many have tried to explain the complexity of autism and why some are able to exhibit traces of undoubted genius while being so detached from what is accepted as normality.
Many theories have been expounded over the years as to why a child is autistic. One suggests it is a result of poor mothering, but this theory is outdated, simplistic an unfair reflection of the families who often have other children who are not autistic, as in the case of Wiltshire's mother.
Wiltshire's ability enables him to capture detail in his drawings, particularly with buildings, with remarkable accuracy and often from memory. Such as his skill, Wiltshire has been known to sketch a building several months after having seen it.
One aspect of Wiltshire's skill is the way he is able to capture detail. He is innumerate but he is able to depict accurately the correct number of columns, arcades and windows in any building. He has an acute response to sound and his reaction to visual stimuli is one of hypnotic fascination which, in some cases, verges on the obsessive.
It is, however, his ability to capture character and mood in his pictures that has established him as a major artistic talent.
Before celebrity status engulfed Wiltshire, he was like any other autistic child, prone to tantrums and dramatic mood swings. His father died in a motorcycle accident and his mother was left to bring up her handicapped child and his sister Annette, now 22, who is a graphic artist.
Wiltshire's talents were first spotted by headmistress, Lorraine Cole, at London's Queensmill School for children with special needs. When he first arrived, as a four-year-old, the headmistress remembers Wiltshire being ‘unreachable' and having no interest in anything or anybody.
The BBC documentary changed his life forever. It led to fame, travel and a growing fortune which is being kept in a trust fund.
His latest book comes on the back of his last work. Floating Cities, published in 1991. Cities was the result of a European tour and features drawings of the cities Wiltshire had visited. Those included Venice, Amsterdam, Moscow, Leningrad, as it was then, but now known by its pre-October 1917 revolution name of St Peterburg.
It was the European tour and the experience of Floating Cities which gave Wiltshire the inspiration to want to travel to America for his latest project. American Dream Is the result of seven months travel through rural and urban America. With Margaret Hewson, of the John Johnson Literacy Agency, who works and travels with Wiltshire, he was able to see places such as the Arizona desert and most of the cities of North America.
Wiltshire had been to America once before, but only briefly. But it was enough for him to fall in love with the country and its people. He was so taken by the splendour and magic and sprawling beauty of American cities that he regards this latest work as his American dream come true.
He first visited Chicago, site of the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, and some say the place where the skyscraper was invented. The jagged, undulating skylines of Chicago, Washington and New York were grist to the mill for Wiltshire. He loves the ruffled outlines and the exciting urban chaos cities present him. They are all food for his eager and receptive imagination.
'If Chicago is the jazz age to Stephen, then Washington is plainsong,' writes Margaret Hewson, whose vibrant text accompanies the drawings.
The trip continued to the frenetic cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and then an inspirational visit to the Grand Canyon by helicopter. The journey ended in New York, a city which contains everything Wiltshire adores about America – skyscrapers, yellow cabs, loud police sirens and hamburgers.
The critics have said the drawings in Wiltshire's new book are bewitching. ‘The cartoons are charmingly idiosyncratic ad a greater use of colour than in his previous books adds even more power. It is now generally believed that child autistics lose their talents as they grow older, Stephen Wiltshire's American Dream graphically demonstrates that this is not so in his case. This book is a stunning tribute to an incredible and awe-inspiring gift.'
Wiltshire's is an exceptional talent. He has been exhibited in Tokyo, New York and London. After a visit to Russia he quickly acquired the nickname ‘ja genie,' which was foisted upon him everywhere he went. ‘That means I'm a genius,' he said.
He is near completion of an arts course in London to compliment his extraordinary talent. It is expected that Wiltshire's talent will continue to progress and not falter. As he enters adulthood, he may well grow to be compared with Mozart, who like Wiltshire, was a child genius whose work grew in importance and influence as time went by.