How many prisons have had the honour of having their 'portraits' drawn? How many celebrated artists have made prison visits to carry out special commissions? Not many, I suspect. This, however, is just what did happen one Sunday in June when a very quiet, polite young man arrived at Wandsworth with his sketching equipment. If this does not conjure up the image of the typical artists, it's because this young man, Stephen Wiltshire, is not the typical artist. After spending some time viewing different aspects of the prison, he selected a position at the top of a fire escape overlooking the yard between D and E Wing, the chapel and Healthcare Centre. A rough sketch produced enough material to act as a guide to the finished drawing. This was completed later, with Stephen using his extraordinary ability to be able to draw detail from memory.
The drawing was especially commissioned as part of the commemoration of HMP Wandsworth's 150th anniversary. The drawing was donated to us and the cover of It's Wandsworth and the article feature details of it.
In the highly competitive world of art, success can be very short lived. Stephen Wiltshire's has endured and shows no signs of abating. Most artists would be proud and consider themselves very lucky to have half his success. Not only has his work been widely exhibited but it has also been published in book form, in magazines and in newspapers. It has also been the subject of numerous TV programmes, both at home and abroad. Ireland, Holland, the USA, Canada and Japan have all made programmes which included him, or featured his work.
These achievements are all the more remarkable when viewed in the context of what Stephen Wiltshire has had to overcome. He has progresses beyond anything that could have been envisaged in his early years. His childhood provided no easy way in to fame and success: quite the reverse, as the odds would seem to have been stacked against him. He was born in 1974, to immigrant parents. His mother came from St Lucia and his father from Barbados. His mother was left to bring up Stephen and his elder sister alone when his father was killed in a motorcycle accident when Stephen was three. It was at this time that he was diagnosed as autistic. This is a complex medical condition, which manifests itself in various ways. In Stephen's case he was mute and did not relate to other people. He had no language, suffered from uncontrollable tantrums and lived entirely in his own world. When, at the age of five, he began attending Queensmill, a school for children with special needs, it was noticed that the only pastime that he enjoyed was drawing.
From that moment, Stephen Wiltshire's life began to take off, but not without difficulty. 'Paper' was his first word, elicited from him by staff at the school, who eventually refused to provide him with it until he asked for it. At first, his drawings were of animals. He then progressed through buses and cars, his knowledge of which is now encyclopedic, and then onto the buildings that brought him to the attention of the public.
Stephen's interest in cityscapes evolved when he was about eight, the result of seeing pictures in school books showing the after-effects of earthquakes. He started to draw hi own imaginary city scenes before drawings real ones. Stephen still remembers those early works. He eventually drew most of London's famous landmarks: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, Tower Bridge, the Post Office Tower, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Sqaure. He has never lost his interest in depicting London. On the opening of the 'London Eye' last year, he produced a centre spread for the Daily Mail and another, a view from the Canary Wharf Tower, for the Daily Mirror. Now, added to the list, is a view of Wandsworth Prison.
'The bests child artist in Britain' was a title bestowed upon Stephen by no less an authority than the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Hugh Casson. This was in 1987, when his extraordinary skills came to public notice when he featured in the BBC QED programme: The Foolish Wise Ones. He was one of three people who were the subject of a study into autism and its effects on creativity; of the others, one excelled in music and the other in mathematics, in the way that Stephen did in art.
The special skill he possesses, that sets him apart from other artists, and the element which caused so much interest in his childhood drawings, is his ability to draw a building accurately from memory. This connection to autism is still a mystery; some early drawings show a reversed mirror image of the subject (the way the drawing of Wandsworth would look if you held it up to the mirror). Later drawings do not manifest this inversion. No one is able to account for the correction, which took place naturally, in later years.
One of the greatest benefits, Stephen thinks, to have come from his talent is the opportunity it gives him to travel, something he was never able to do as a child. Drawings, 1987, with an introduction by Sir Hugh Casson, was the first of many books to illustrate his work. In 1989 ITN News arranged for him to visit New York. This provided some of the illustrations for his second books: Cities, 1989. A visit to Paris provided more, as did Edinburgh and, from closer to home, London's Docklands.
In 1991, QED made a follow-up documentary, The Boy Who Draws Buildings, which enabled Stephen to visit Russia and, for the first time, Italy, to draw Venice. The resulting book, Floating Cities, was particularly successful, becoming a number one best-seller in the Sunday Times list. It was the first book to carry accompanying texts, provided by his agent, Margaret Hewson. He revisited Italy, this time Rome, after winning the Philip Connard Travel Award in 1996. Since leaving School in 1990, Stephen has been remarkably active in a variety of ways. He has attended a Youth Training Scheme, worked part-time in a bakery, completed a one-year foundation course at the Architectural Association and a three-year City and Guilds course in drawings and painting. In March this year he completed a two One Step course when, for three days a week, he learnt computer graphics, animation and desktop publishing. At present he is part-time student at the City and Guilds School, working in the print room. Printing is now his favourite medium: etchings, sugar lifts and lithographs in particular. Stephen earns his living as an artist and draws every day: he fulfils private commissions, both In the UK and abroad. He always carries a sketch-book, pen, pencils and a rubber and has them in his rucksack at all times. His advice to all budding artists is to do likewise. His work has now appeared in numerous exhibitions around the world. The Royal Institute of British Architects staged the first one in Edinburgh. The exhibition then toured around Britain. Most recently, his work was on show at the John B. Aird gallery, Toronto, in 1999.
If all this were not enough to keep anyone busy, Stephen also takes piano and singing lessons once a week! Stephen is pitch perfect, can identify any key and has become a natural musical performer.
In October 1999, he attended a conference at the Geneva Centre for Autism, Toronto. He gave a 20-minute speech on his artwork and followed it by playing the piano whilst singing his own musical compositions. Margaret Hewson and her husband Andrew accompanied him on the visit. Last year he returned to give another talk to an audience of two thousand people. On that occasion he was accompanied by Temple Grandin and Oliver Sacks, who has made him the subject of an extended essay entitled An Anthropologist on Mars.
Stephen Wiltshire admits that fame is good and it feels great but he has remained coolly level-headed. As to his being a celebrity, he doesn't appear to think he quite deserves the title – yet! His life has certainly changed in many ways, the most significant, perhaps, being the opportunity to find new visual challenges for drawing.
Stephen lives with his mother in West London. His development continues to be monitored by London University. He is the only autistic artist in the world whose work has been recorded and published since his childhood. It provides a unique insight into his social and artistic development. As he is still only in his early twenties there will, no doubt, be many more works to come from this fascinating artist. With so many more new skills now at his disposal – computer graphics, animation, lithography – who knows what direction his future work will take? Whatever that direction may be, he has already managed to be an inspirational force.