Artist's extraordinary talent
In the enormous cobbled expanse of Moscow's Red Square, a tiny capped figure sits on an artist's stool in front of St Basil's Cathedral. He has limpid brown eyes, and a private smile plays around his lips. Behind him, onlookers marvel silently at his brilliant sketch.
The young man's concentration is intense, but even if he wanted to chat, he is unable to – not because this Londoner speaks no Russian, but because he is autistic, trapped in a mental foreign land of his own. He cannot travel by travel by himself or even buy a simple meal. Yet Stephen Wiltshire is famed worldwide for his brilliant architectural drawings.
After an hour he leaves. The drawing is incomplete, but Stephen will finish it later, recording every detail of his perfect mental 'snapshot' of the building. Renowned neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks, who is with him in Moscow, marvels at his powers of perception, his imagery and his remarkable memory, and records: 'It makes no difference to him, apparently, whether he draws from life, or five minutes, five hours, five weeks or years later.'
Stephen's remarkable gift shines through the barrier of his autism. Explains psychiatrist Dr Anthony Clare: 'Some individuals with mental handicaps have idiot-savant syndrome, in which they manifest highly developed, though often repetitive, mechanical and unimaginative talents – like a meticulous mastery of complete railway or bus timetables.' But for a savant to develop into a genuine rtist, as Stephen has, is exceptional.
When Stephen was born on April 24, 1974, Genny and Colvin Wiltshire were delighted to have a brother for two-year-old Annette. Their beautiful baby son was soon crawling, then toddling. Sometimes, his parents thought, he was almost too good.
It was Colvin who first noticed something different about Stephen. 'Why doesn't he say anything?' he wondered to Genny. 'Annette was talking at his age.' But Genny's doctor brushed aside their concern; 'Stephen's an absolutely normal two-year-old. Some children don't speak until they are three'
On the bitterly cold evening of December 1, 1976, tragedy struck. Colvin, returning home from his work as an electrical engineer, was killed when his motorbike skidded out of control. Genny was inconsolable. She moved from their south London flat to west London's Little Venice to be near her aunt, and threw her energies into looking after the children. Stephen worried her more and more. She knew he was bright by the intelligent look in hie eyes. But still he did not say a word and when other children came to play, he was aloof and uncommunicative.
One afternoon, Stephen erupted in uncontrollable sobs. When Genny scooped him up and rocked him back and forth, he began screaming shrilly. Foar an hour, nothing calmed him. Then the awful crying stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
As the weeks went by, Stephen's tantrums became more violent. One evening he began roaring as if in pain. Sticking his fingers in his ears, he dashed into the lavatory and shut himself in. Then Genny felt Annette pulling at her sleeve: 'Look, Mum. It's blowing a gale.' The wind was whipping up the water on the canal, and thunder boomed above the heavy rain. So that's it! Thought Genny. Opening the door, she knelt beside the hysterical boy: 'It's all right. I understand. You're afraid of the storm, aren't you?'
That night, Genny was woken by a distressed figure tugging at the sheets. As she stretched out her arms, he climbed in and lay rigid beside her. 'I don't understand all your inner fears, Stephen,' Genny said gently, turning out the light, 'but at least I can comfort you.' For the next seven years, Stephen would sleep beside her.
People suggested that Colvin's death had traumatised the toddler into muteness. But that couldn't be so, reasoned Genny, Colvin, too had been concerned that Stephen didn't talk. Finally, Stephen was sent to the child psychiatry department at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington where, in 1978, doctors told Genny, 'Mrs. Wiltshire, your son is autistic.'
Autism is a condition that affects as many as one in 500 children, some of whom never speak. Its cause is unknown, but it probably involves an inborn abnormality of brain development, which scrambles information as it is processed. The inner world of an autistic child is often a confusing nightmare of fear and panic. 'There is no cure,' the specialists told Genny. 'Stephen may never be independent, though specially trained teachers may be able to help him.
But when Genny took the four-year-old to enrol at Queensmill, a special school in Fulham, her heart sank, Stephen seemed unaware of the children and the head teacher, Lorraine Cole. Avoiding eye contact, he roamed from room to room. At break, in the playground, he showed no interest in other children's games. Could they really help him?
Stephen was developing bizarre new habits – a strange head movement like a nervous tic, an obsession with buses. Every time they passed a toy shop, he screamed and tugged until Genny bought him a red bus.
An exhausted Genny accepted a weekend's respite care from social services. But Stephen respite care from social services. But Stephen returned more withdrawn than ever. He began spitting on his hands, rubbing them over the furniture, then smearing his face with the dirty saliva. Appalled by his ritual, Genny vowed: Stephen, I'll never send you away agin. Annette and I will look after you,'
One evening after school, Genny found Stephen scribbling hypnotically on a scrap of paper Annette had given him. 'Are you trying to draw, Stephen?' she asked in amazement. Rapt in what he was doing, he didn't even look up. Next day, Genny gave him a fresh sheet of paper. Again, he began scribbling, up and down, as if his life depended on iy.
Soon, the scribbles took shape and became little animals – tigers, elephants, giraffes. How can he do this, when he can't even talk or play? wondered Genny. Where do these exotic little creatures come from?
At school, Stephen began sketching wickedly accurate caricatures of staff. When they shrieked in delight, he laughed out loud at their effect. Despite his lack of eye contact and apparent indifference, he was, after all, watching them.
Stephen's teachers and therapists worked together to try to help him master speech. Their reward came one day, when Stephen was seven. Holding up the treasured paper he wanted to draw on, Lorraine Cole slowly repeated the word 'paper.'
There was a long silence. Lorraine feared a tantrum. Briefly, Stephen's solemn brown eyes met hers. Then, painfully and slowly, his lips formed two syllables: 'Paper?' Before the word was out, Lorraine had given him the sheet. Stephen had learnt the value of language.
Stephen's skills astonished Chris Marris, a new teacher at Queensmill, who took him on drawing trips round London. And when the school was approached to feature Stephen in a BBC documentary about gifted autistic youngsters, Chris was eager for him to take part.
'The Foolish Wise Ones,' a QED programme televised in 1987, showed Stephen, then 11, standing with his class, his eyes scanning the Victorian Gothic architecture of London's St Pancras railway station. As the other youngsters, back in school, produced their childish pictures, the camera closed on Stephen drawing – across, up, down, around, spinning a magic line, capturing some mysterious inner vision.
'His sense of perspective seems faultless,' Sir Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy, told viewers. 'I've never seen such a natural and extraordinary talent.'
Overnight, Stephen became famous. Letters flooded in from people wanting to see more of his work. Sir Hugh suggested that the agent Margaret Hewson might help. A vivacious Scotswoman with a deep love of art and architecture, Margaret oversaw the publication of his first book, Drawings, depicting London buildings from the Albert Hall to the Zoo. Soon, to give Genny a break, Margaret was inviting Stephen to her flat every Sunday.
In February 1988, accompanied by Chris Marris, Stephen flew to New York to be filmed for ITN's News at Ten. They visited the neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose book, Awakenings, about sleeping-sickness patients he temporarily brought back to life with a new drug, became an acclaimed film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
'Will you draw my house?' the bulky scientist suggested, leading Stephen into his garden. After casting an indifferent glance at the red weatherboard house, the boy asked to go back inside. But the resulting whimsical sketch delighted Dr Sacks. 'Stephen has a very clear, very individual and very playful mind,' he remarked. Later, he wrote in the foreward to Stephen's second book, Cities: 'The combination of great abilities with great disabilities presents an extraordinary paradox: how can such opposites live side by side?'
I first met Stephen one warm May afternoon, soon after the publication of Cities. As the mother of an autistic child myself, I was wary of invading his space, but he gave me a shy smile and shook hands when I greeted him.
'Do you know how special you are, Stephen?' I asked. 'Yes. I specially like the Empire State Building, Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, Docklands...' Stephen's curiously flat voice intoned a list of famous architecture. I was intrigued by the way his mind latched on to the word 'special', missing the nuance of my question and giving a substitute answer to please me. How different Stephen was from my own son of the same age, who neither talks nor draws. And yet, how uncannily similar – elusive, yet charming.
STEPHEN had grown into a handsome young man by the time Dr Oliver Sacks met him again, in Moscow in May 1990, on the last leg of a European drawing tour. Despite his odd tics and occasional remoteness, he was utterly different from the terrified child who had screamed for hours. That night, in a Moscow hotel room, Margaret and Oliver witnessed a second remarkable 'awakening'. Stephen suddenly climbed on to a chair and started to sing, pouring out aria after aria from Bizet's Carmen. 'However did you do that?' asked Margaret. 'I heard it on television,' replied Stephen.
Back home in London, Margaret took Stephen to meet music teacher Evelyn Preston. Stephen sang for her, then suggested different rhythms and harmonies. He not only has perfect pitch, he could identify chord structures in any piece and displayed a rare talent for improvisation. Evie was thrilled with his obvious musical ability.
The discovery of this second gift provoked huge scientific interest. 'The skills of most idiot-savants are usually limited to one area,' explains psychologist Linda Pring of Goldsmith's College, London. In her research she has come across one man who could remember a whole telephone directory, another who speaks 14 different languages. 'But to have two such highly developed artistic talents is exceptionally rare.'
To test the workings of his remarkable mind, Linda showed him drawings of a tulip, a wine glass and bottle. 'Which would you place beside the glass, Stephen?' she asked. 'The tulip,' he replied, indicating that he thinks in terms of shapes and line, before words. 'Most of us make a verbal connection between wine and glasses,' explains Linda, 'But to Stephen, the shapes more readily connect the tulip and the glass.'
Scientists still do not understand how, without any formal training, Stephen acquired his exceptional talents. Even the most inspired theories are guesswork. His genius remains a tantalizing mystery.
IN 1991, Margaret fulfilled her promise to take Stephen back to America where he had fallen in love with the skyscrapers, yellow cabs, and classic American cars. In New York's Grand Central Station, a crowd of well-wishers fired a barrage of questions as he sketched: 'How did you learn perspective, Stephen?'
'I got it,' he answered laconically.
'Have you ever considered training as an artist?'
'I am an artist.'
'Do you like this station?'
'I like the Chrysler Building.'
Everyone requested a drawing Stephen simply smiled enigmatically until a girl asked for a sketch of Buick. Favouring her with a dazzling grin, he put aside his sketch and drew her a signed picture.
Last October, back home, Stephen faced perhaps his biggest challenge. His talent has gained him a coveted place at The Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Genny was thrilled – and anxious. How could a teenager who couldn't add up the cost of a hamburger and coke or always give a straight answer to a simple question survive in a world that didn't understand him?
She needn't have worried. On the first day of term, Stephen and his fellow students flocked to the coffee bar after class, chatting as if there was no barrier. Stephen was discovering what autism makes so painfully elusive, friendship with his peers.
When I meet Stephen again I am struck by the transformation. 'Hello, Fleur, how are you, I'm fine.' He intones the safe formula, his monotone now an octave deeper. I'm warmed by his glowing face, as if he's sharing a secret joke – that he's learnt the social niceties by rote, and is amused at their effect. I notice his odd head-jerking has vanished.
He becomes animated as he mimics his favourite scene from the film Rain Man, in which the autistic Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman who met Stephen in 1989, lists the dates and details of various airline disasters, then has an adult tantrum in the airport to avoid flying. 'I had my last tantrum five years ago,' confides Stephen. 'I used to throw things around the flat.' He looks at me with a depth that would be unnerving if it weren't so friendly and accepting.
Annette, now an attractive young woman, watches us talk. Gently protective, she checks that Stephen knows the time for his music lesson later in the week. There I watch him standing beside Evie's grand piano, belting out an old Sam Cooke number with formidable gusto.
'Don't know much about history/ Don't know much biology,' he sings, his autism falling away for a few moments in the clarity of his communication. He alters the last line from 'What a wonderful world this would be' to 'What a wonderful world for me', flinging out his arms in contagious happiness. I can't help applauding, ad he smiles, then retreats, once again remote.
Stephen will always be autistic, but his charm and courage have given him a new tranquility. And this, for Stephen, is what's most important. Not his extraordinary talents, but his triumph in becoming more ordinary every day.