Stephen Wiltshire is well known all over the world for his incredibly detailed and accurate drawings of city panoramas, which are often drawn from memory. From early childhood it was obvious that Stephen had an extraordinary ability to express himself through the language of drawing, and since then drawing has been his passion.
Stephen's prodigious talent is all the more remarkable considering that he was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. He was completely mute as a young child and found it hard to relate to other people. In fact, he didn't start talking until he went to school. At first, his teachers at Queensmill School, London encouraged him to speak by temporarily taking away his drawing materials, so that he had to ask for them. Like Picasso, his first words were 'pencil and paper'.
From that moment, chiefly through the success and recognition of his art, Stephen's confidence started to grow. However, he didn't learn to speak fully until the age of nine. His first drawings were of animals, London transport Routemaster buses, black taxis and finally buildings. These drawings were made in pencil to begin with, but later he changed to pen and ink. Architectural subjects soon became his main interest: he has always been fascinated by architecture. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he witnessed the demolition of a large building. When he arrived home he got out his pen and paper and drew the view he had seen over and over again, until he considered the drawing perfect.
The school used to take pupils out on day trips around London and on one famously filmed occasion Stephen drew St Pancras Station exactly how he had seen it earlier in the day. Once the school started to enter his art into competitions, news of his prodigious talent began to spread. Early admirers included the former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who commissioned the young artist, now eight years old, to draw Salisbury Cathedral.
Wider recognition and public and media attention came when the BBC featured Stephen in the programme, The Foolish Wise Ones, in 1987. In this programme Stephen was introduced by Sir Hugh Casson (the former President of the Royal Academy) as 'the best child artist in Britain'. After that his career began to develop quickly and his first book, Drawings, a collection of his early sketches, prefaced by Sir Hugh Casson, was published later that year.
Stephen has always been critical of his own work and, like all good craftsmen, intent on further developing his skill day by day. He would often throw away his early drawings because, in his view, they weren't perfect – even though they seemed perfect to everyone else. Unbeknown to Stephen, his mother would rescue these drawings from the bin and iron them out! As Zoltan Szipola, who has known Stephen for many years and is managing director of the Stephen Wiltshire Gallery, says: 'Up to this day Stephen takes his talent for granted, while still being a humble individual. His confidence is silent, but well established.'
In 1988, age 13, Stephen made his first trip to New York, and this proved a career highlight. It was life-changing experience. He was completely captivated by the city's streets, squares, skyscrapers, iconic yellow cabs and bright lights. Interestingly, the resultant New York drawings are still among his personal favourites. His name is now synonymous with finely detailed and vigorously expressed pen and ink drawings of the great cities of the world. For him, buildings and cities represent the combination of chaos and order co-existing – the morning rush of people and cars versus the straight avenues and skyscrapers. The fact that buildings are always being constructed and demolished shows change and development, which excites Stephen.
When he left school, Stephen enrolled on a drawing and painting course at City & Guilds of London Art School to widen his experience and knowledge of different media and techniques. However, his favourite approach has remained working with pen and ink on paper. This is the approach that he has used on his visits to many other cities during his career, including Paris, Edinburgh, Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad and Moscow.
Line and colour
Stephen can draw scenes on the spot, a week later, or even 10 or 20 years later. For him it makes no difference. He often draws on site or from reference as well. But equally he creates stunning and remarkably accurate drawings from memory. For example, a second BBC film in 2001 showed Stephen flying over London in a helicopter and subsequently completing a detailed and perfectly scaled aerial view within three hours. His incredible drawing, of a four-sqaure-mile area, included 12 historic landmarks and 200 other structures. It is a perfect example of his innate ability and astonishing eye for detail.
Inspiration can come at any moment – whilst on a bus, in a helicopter or in a park, glancing at a magazine or the television, or thinking of an entirely imaginary view. Stephen always carries a sketchbook with him so that he can make quick reference sketches from which to work in more detail.
For his drawings, Stephen works on Daler-Rowney or Hahnemuhle drawing paper with Staedtler pigment liners, from sizes 0.05 to 0.7. For a large-scale drawing he will use up to a dozen of these pens. In the past he would sometimes begin by making a rough sketch in pencil and then work with the pens, but now he begins straight ways in pen and ink. 'To watch the ink touch the paper, it is almost like fine embroidery,' his sister, Annette explains. 'You can actually see it develop. I never get tired of watching it.' He doesn't start in a particular way, for example with a significant feature within the scene. Instead, he usually works on several seemingly unconnected areas on the paper, and everything only comes together at the very end of the drawing. Now he often adds colour, using pastels, as well as some tonal work, in pencil. Occasionally, for large-scale projects he works in oil paints. However, he is not particularly fond of oils, because they take too long to dry.
In recent years Stephen's work has been in increasing demand all over the world. In 2005 he was commissioned to make vast panoramic drawings of nine world cities, starting with a 10 metre long representation of the Tokyo skyline. Subsequently he accepted a commission from Hong Kong, created in two 5 metre sections – drawing Victoria Harbour after only a 20 minute helicopter ride. And other commissions took him to Rome, Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, London, New York, Sydney and Shanghai.
In 2011 he completed a large-scale drawing of Manhattan for an international bank, UBS, a 75 metre poster version of which is currently displayed at JFK airport, New York. He also completed an aerial view of the 2012 Olympic site. His waiting list mainly consists of smaller scale drawings of cities and street scenes for private and corporate collectors.
Undoubtedly Stephen's art is remarkable. It is exceptionally skillful and impressive. What is also striking is that Stephen enjoys what he does and brings enjoyment to many other people. 'I enjoy drawing because it makes me feel happy,' he says, 'and lots of people enjoy looking at my work. It makes me smile. They always say how good my work is. I feel very proud.'
In 2006 Stephen was made an MBE for his services to the art world. He is not only an inspiration to artists, but arguably he has done more than anyone else to change the perception of autistic people.