Portrait of a young Genius
Stephen Wiltshire look up from his perfectly-reproduced drawings of a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette and frowns pensively at the question. He beams and leans towards me. I lean forward, holding my breath in anticipation of his answer.
But Stephen shakes his head and launches into his favourite topic of conversation.
'I like American cars: 1950s, Sixties and Seventies American cars. I like 1973 Buick Electras. I also like 1949 Buick convertibles and 1977 Chevrolet Caprices.’ he says, reeling off a list of classic automobiles complete with full descriptions.
'The question was: How does he draw? How does this 15-year-old autistic boy produce such remarkable architectural drawings, often from memory?' How is it he can look at a famous landmark and without taking a single note, go away and remember the finest detail, down to the number of windows, arcades and columns, sometimes weeks or months after.
But Stephen – described by former president of the Royal Academy, Sir Hugh Casson, as possibly the best child artist in Britain after his discovery in 1987 at the age of 12 – doesn't understand how.
While he draws on his sketch pad in sharp, fine lines, his conversations tend to go round in circles. Ask him a question he's not sure about and he will think, frown and smile. He'll then return to the subject which is a kind of verbal security blanket – American cars.
His perception of people and places is expressed in such terms. For his latest book of drawings, Floating Cities, Stephen took a grand tour of Venice, Amsterdam, Moscow and Leningrad. His previous work book, Cities, found him on drawing expeditions to New York and Paris.
New York and Amsterdam are recalled enthusiastically because, in both capitals, Stephen saw American cars. Moscow and Leningrad, crawling with incomparable Volgas and Ladas, were by the same standard, disappointing.
Though conversation does not come easy to Stephen, his ability to communicate has improved immensely since he was revealed as a child prodigy four years ago. In February 1987 he was featured in a BBC QED documentary. The Foolish Wise Ones, which showed a talented but autistic child whose verbal skills were limited and who did not appear to relate to people.
Like other autistic children he was locked in his own world, virtually mute until the age of seven and prone to violent tantrums and dramatic changes of mood. His mother was left to bring up her handicapped son and his elder sister Annette, now 19, single handedly after their father died in a motorcycle accident when Stephen was a toddler.
His talent was noticed by former headmistress, Lorraine Cole, at London's Queensmill School for children with social needs. When he first arrived, as a four-year-old pupil, she remembers he was an 'unreachable child' who had no interesting anything or anyone.
When he began to draw, Lorraine encouraged him and gradually taught him to overcome his behavioural problems, to read, write and speak.
The BBC documentary was Stephen's personal landmark. It triggered a chain of events which led to travel, fame and a small fortune, now held for him in a trust fund.
Today, Stephen is increasingly playful and self-assured. During our meeting he laughs, giggles, hums and bursts into a rendition of his favourite pop song, sketching, all the while. And he hugs and kisses our hostess Margaret Hewson. Stephen's friend, mentor and author of his latest book. Though he talks mostly in lists, words seldom fail him. A question usually elicits a concise inventory of nouns which he associates with the place, person or subject.
The topic changes back to American cars, and sister Annette, a graphic artist, raises her eyes heavenwards. She doesn't share her brother's passion for the theme but is obviously proud of him.
'Everyone thinks autistic children are in their own world, that they don't talk and they have tantrums,' she says.
'But Stephen is going out to prove that he can do more than that – to prove that he can draw, communicate and do things for himself.'
Annette continues: 'He likes all the publicity, but life for us as a family is still the same. He is more open now, but he is still my baby brother.'
Margaret Hewson adds: 'Stephen's drawing is something that he can give the world, that people respond to.'
It is not clear whether Stephen understands why he sketches or that he is extraordinary gifted. And, when he congratulates himself on his work, it sounds more like simple repetition of what he has been told by others, than endearing immodesty.
'I am a good drawer,' he says. 'In Russia they said 'Ja genie' That means I am a genius'.