A bigger picture of an artist


 
 
 
The bigger picture - The Artist's Press Archive
Page 93 of 136


A bigger picture of an artist

Think of a spider. Think of a sewing-machine needle performing some elaborate piece of embroidery. Think of the busy pattern made by cardiogram, or the mesmerizing effects of time-lapse photography. All these things are closer to the tireless movement of Stephen Wiltshire's pen the anything we normally expect from an artist at work.

Stephen is sitting at the big window of an airy flat on Richmond Hill, recording the landscape below, that famous bend in the Thames that inspired artist for centuries. It's not a very Stephen Wiltshire scene - too Arcadian, too many trees, none of the complex, soaring buildings for which he is best known. His pen, clamped awkwardly between his forefinger and the base of his right thumb, is jabbing and spinning as if with independent life. Though he looks up to check the scene now and then, Stephen seems to be working almost entirely from memory, starting in the top right-hand corner and moving without correction or interruption across the page.

‘I remember by head,' he says, smiling his wide, slightly absent smile. ‘I used to correct things. When I was a small boy, I used to throw drawings away if they weren't correctly right. Now I hope it's not going to be a problem. I do freehand.' Do you prefer buildings to landscape? ‘I prefer buildings to landscape. I like Canary Wharf. They've got a new skyscraper there. I like the Swiss-Re Tower. Nice shape. I've drawn it twice.'

Are you going to do this big tree in the foreground, Stephen? ‘When I'm ready.'

Stephen Wiltshire is the autistic ‘savant' whose drawings, especially of elaborate buildings and cityscapes, becomes the subject of universal amazement after he was featured in a QED television programme in 1987. Then a solitary child of 12, he could hardly speak and had never had an art lesson, yet wonders of draughtsmanship and perspective streamed effortlessly from his pen. The more complicated the building, the better he liked it.

His visual memory was astounding. From the briefest of glances, he would fix a subject in his mind, extract its essence and replicate every detail on paper. Not necessarily right away, but sometimes days, weeks or even months later. In 1991, when he was 16, Stephen executed a perfect front elevation of St Paul's Cathedral despite having neither seen nor drawn it for nine years. He couldn't count, yet if a boiling in front of him had 148 windows, exactly 148 windows would appear in his drawing of it. The late Sir Hugh Casson called him ‘possibly the best child artist in Britain'.

Over the years, four best-selling books of his drawings have been published and Stephen - in many ways as mystifying a young man as he was a boy - has become a psychologists' case study in autistic savantism. He has made unpredictable leaps of learning and mastered social skills that people once believed would be impossible. The conversation I am having with him now about his technique and his picture of the view from Richmond Hill would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Some psychologists feared that if Stephen began to grasp language, his autistic gift would vanish. Quite the reverse has happened.

In fact almost every prediction made about Stephen Wiltshire has been confounded. Most ‘savants' - mentally handicapped people with a single shining talent - have only one area of brilliance. Stephen can also play the piano, sight-read, memorize opera arias after one hearing - and he has perfect pitch. But because his musical skills are much less highly developed than his artistic ones, he is not that extreme rarity, a ‘double savant'.

He has gained an art degree, which, when it was first proposed, was dismissed by armchair pundits as downright unwise. Were savants educable? Would someone as innately gifted as Stephen benefit from art teaching? And what if formal lessons destroyed his autonomous way of seeing? Then there were the practicalities. This was a boy who had not crossed the road unaccompanied, who could not understand money. How would such a vulnerable person cope in the outside world?

To meet, Stephen is a puzzling young man. Now 29, he is tall, rangy, well dressed, with a little moustache and beard, and a broad, slow smile. His manner is gentle, almost trance-like, and he is deeply courteous. In conversation he only really comes alive when the subject turns to his great passion - America. American skyscrapers, American taxis, American classic cars, American film stars, American blondes. When he refers to his music teacher, Evelyn Preston, it is always ‘my American piano teacher'. He speaks like a foreigner with slightly shaky grammar. When asked a question, he will usually start by repeating the exact words of the question, as in a child's early the reading primer. Although he seems to enjoy the attention his art brings him he likes an audience when he is drawing- he has curiously little interest in the finished work, beyond saying it is ‘nice' or ‘good'.

Stephen lives with his mother, Geneva, in his childhood home near Paddington. His elder sister, Annette, lives nearby. Together, these two remarkable women have dedicated their lives to making him as normal as possible. Being totally unmathematical, he is not good with money, so Annette goes shopping with him and helps him to pay for his clothes. His mother gives him the right change for his train fares. But within his seemingly dependent life, he has pockets of independence. He can cook simple meals without anyone having to worry whether he will burn the house down; he cleans his room; and he travels to college, to piano lessons and to Oxford Street on his own. (He had speech therapy for 10 year but has never been treated by any other therapist or counsellor.) ‘If he wants to go to a college party, I'll be the minicab,' says Annette. ‘He'll let me know what time the party ends and I'll be eating for him. But I make sure I'm not in the way and don't cramp his style. He comes to the cinema with me and my partner. As far as possible, I want him to be the same as everyone else.'

People meeting Stephen for the first time find him engaging but they quickly sense that he is not on a wavelength they recognize. There is something elusive about him, as though his personality is drifting untethered somewhere else.

‘He's picking thing up all the time but doesn't route the information the same way as others,' says Evie Preston, who has been teaching him the piano for nine years. ‘He knits things together in his own way. He's very intuitive. I think he can almost read people's thoughts. But after all these years, he's a mystery to me still. I am particularly gentle with him because I don't think he has a thick skin. He's like an animal without fur.'

Autism is a development disorder affecting one in 110 people. It was not medically defined until the 1940s - simultaneously by Leo Kanner in Baltimore and Hans Aspergers in Vienna. Both men identified mental ‘aloneness' as the cardinal feature. Autistic people had strange preoccupation and fixations. They were obsessed with ritual and routine and their movement were often repetitive. Aspergers noted the tendency to avoid eye contact - one of Stephen Wiltshire's early characteristics - and to take in things by short peripheral glances.

Only one or two per cent outhouse who suffer from autism are savants, displaying the characteristic ‘islands of skill surrounded by seas of inability'. Of the 43 recorded savants in the world, some can make mathematical calculation with electronic speed; some are highly musical; some, like Stephen Wiltshire have prodigious drawing abilities. One savant could recall the entire nine volumes of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which had been read to him by his father. Another can name the day of the week on which any date, past or future, fell or will fall.

Stephen's autism was diagnosed when he was four - but his savantism was not recognized until several years later. He was born in London in April 1974, the second child of West Indian immigrants. His father, Colvin, was an electrical engineer and his mother a seamstress. They noticed that, compared with his sister, their son was slow to sit up, stand and walk, and he seemed to hate being held. He screamed or hid in a corner when other children came near. Most distressing of all, he was almost mute.

Just before Stephen's third birthday, his father was killed in a motorbike accident. Stephen's behaviour became noticeably more disturbed. He started screaming, rocking and flapping his hand, and what little language he had disappeared. When he arrived at Queensmill, a special school in west London, he was desperately withdrawn. He had a repertoire of strange head movements and vented his frustrations in an animal roaring. The headmistress, Lorraine Cole, recalled, ‘Stephen would climb on to a play bike, pedal it furiously, then hurl himself off it, roaring with laughter and sometimes screaming.'

Geneva Wiltshire is a shy woman, who has always preferred Annette to deal with intense public curiosity about Stephen, but she members how drawing was the one thing that seemed to calm him. ‘He started drawing when he was five,' she says. ‘It was his language.' He drew on the wall, then moved on to his sister's schoolbooks. ‘When he scribbled all over my maths books, I wasn't pleased at all,' Annette says. ‘For me, doing homework was not a pleasurable thing. This upset me even further.'

To begin with, Stephen's scribblings were mostly of cars. Then quite suddenly, at the age of seven, he developed an intense preoccupation with huge, complex buildings, the sort of landmark buildings that would interest an adult but hardly register with a small child. While his classmates were drawing stickmen, Stephen was recording Tower Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral - lines, curves, curlicues flowing from the tip of his pencil like a computer graphic. People called him ‘The Drawer'.

In an effort to encourage Stephen to speak, Lorraine Cole decide to deprive him of paper and pencils to see what happened. Goaded by the sight of a piece of paper being held just beyond his reach, he uttered his first word: ‘Paper.'

A young teacher called Chris Marris joined Queensmill in 1982. He had been teaching disabled children for nine years but nothing in his experience had prepared him for Stephen Wiltshire's strange combination of great skill and profound disability. From this isolated child sitting in a corner of the room, remarkable things were unraveling on paper. Somehow or other, quite untaught, he had mastered line and perspective. He could reproduce whole cityscapes from what he had seen on school trips or on television. All from memory. All at speed.

For the next four years, Marris took Stephen on drawing trips round London, sometimes with classmates on the school bus, sometimes just the two of them in his orange and white camper van. He was fascinated by the contrast between the boy's apparently causal approach to his subjects and the fabulous intricacy of his sketches.

Marris entered two of Stephen's drawings in a national children's art exhibition and one of them won a prize. He asked two psychologists known for their work on autistic savants, Beate Hermelin and Neil O'Connor, for an opinion on Stephen and they declared him one of the most gifted savants they had tested. In 1987 the almost wordless 12-year-old was featured in The Foolish Wise Ones, a QED programme on savantism. Stephen was shown drawing the Victorian Gothic confection of St Pancras station, and viewers who saw the swift, confident lines posing from the tip of a pencil that hardly seemed to leave the page have never forgotten it. ‘Every now and then a rocket of young talent explodes and showers us with its sparks,' Sir Hugh Casson said. ‘Stephen Wiltshire is one of those rockets.' Through Casson, Stephen met the woman who was to become his mentor and who gave him two remarkable things - a career and a personality. Margaret Hewson was a vivid, idiosyncratic Scotswoman with an intuitive way of bringing the best out of people, especially the unhappy or thwarted. She and her husband, Andrew, ran a literary agency in Clerkenwell and Casson was one of their authors. Margaret was intrigued by reports of Stephen's mysterious gift, allied to his enormous disadvantages. He became her mission.

She started taking him on monthly drawing trips, usually on a Sunday morning. Andrew would drive, carry the bags and make sure they ate. Annette, Stephens confidante and protector would be there to give her brother reassurance. Geneva Wiltshire would sometimes go along, too. The Hewsons' daughter, Anna, made up the family group. ‘We all got along as a gang,' Andrew says. ‘That's what was so good.'

Their expeditions became more and more adventurous. A born organizer, Margaret persuaded hotels to put them up for nothing, bullying airlines for free seats, shamelessly using her charm and contacts to provide venues for filming. She took Stephen to Venice, to Russia, to Tokyo - and to the place of his dreams, America. ‘What fun they had!' Andrew says.

In 1987 Margaret set up a trust to prevent Stephen from being exploited by the sudden onrush of celebrity and to give him financial security. It was to receive the fees from his commissions, and royalties from his books of drawings, though she would never divulge anything about his earning power. She was headstrong, tireless. What was in it for her? Dr Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who featured Stephen in his book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), admits that the question had crossed his mind. ‘But Margaret had such a rich life of her own,' he recalls. ‘She had so much energy and dedication and practical knowledge. She gave his life an added dimension. What stuck me was her almost sacrificial dedication to Stephen.'

Margaret could make Stephen laugh. She bombarded him with information and questions. What kind of column is this, Stephen? What is the style of this building? Her ambition, Andrew says, was to understand Stephen and to present him with as many challenges as she possibly could. ‘My wife often described the extraordinary odyssey of her relationship with him as journey without maps.'

Through Margaret's contacts, Stephen was offered a place at the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kensington, south London. Through her, he started having music lesson. Some people assumed he was her adopted son.

‘She understood him, he understood her,' Annette Wiltshire says. ‘She could seem strong and domineering, but not once you got to know her. She kept pushing and believing. If it hadn't been for her, Stephen would not have got as far as he has.'

Miraculously, in the small, protective environment of City and Guilds, Stephen has flourished. He has been a student there for seven years, has his degree, and is now an almost permanent fixture in the print room, where he works single-mindedly, both part of and yet a little apart from normal student activities. His fees are paid out of the trust managed by his mother and his sister.

Perhaps the most striking paradox of his condition is that, despite a childlike dependance on his mother and sister for the necessities of life, he travels to college each day on his own and can adapt his journey if there are strikes or signal failures.

‘I cannot tell you how he has come out of himself since he has been here,' says his former tutor, Michael Buhler. ‘At first I was slightly apprehensive. I didn't want to be in the position of minder to check he didn't cut himself with a Stanley knife the moment I went off for a cup of tea. Conversation seemed impossible. You had to make all the running. Now he initiates it. He sees and takes everything that's going on. Once, we would have said he was an autistic person with unusual abilities. Now, we just think of him was Stephen. He is not completely socially integrated - but, on the other hand, he is not an unhappy, left-out loner.'

In his second year, Stephen won a travelling scholarship to Rome without anyone on the selection panel realising he was autistic. An ‘extraordinary' degree in drawing and painting was created for him - not, Buhler says, because he didn't deserve a conventional degree but purely because he could not write an essay. There are certainly limits to Stephen's artistic vision, but through print-making and oil-painting, colour and tone, he has added greatly to his repertoire - exactly as Margaret Hewson had predicted he would.

Last autumn, Margaret dies of cancer, aged 55. ‘My biggest worry was how Stephen would handle it,' Evie Preston, his piano teacher, says. ‘I felt he might need ‘permission' to speak about her, so I said, ‘I miss Margaret, don't you?' He said, ‘I miss Margaret,' but he didn't have anything else to say. There was no evidence of an emotional loss. I think his family must have dealt with it very sensitively. Stephen tends to knit things together, but not in the way we do.' Her anxiety was shared by everyone who understood the complexities of the Stephen-Margaret relationship. Would her loss halt his development? Does he miss her? Does he feel grief, love, pain, fear, as other people do? Annette says her brother smiled all the way through Margaret's funeral. When a piece Margaret had written about him was read out, he smiled even more. ‘I am sure he cares and can feel loss,' Oliver Sacks says. ‘But I'm not sure he can express it.' Andrew Hewson maintains the continuity of the Sunday drawing expeditions, with Annette sitting on Stephen's left, deciding on angles and pen sizes, as Margaret used to do. ‘It is a totally magical experience to watch him draw,' Andrew says, ‘I never tire of it.'

What kind of a future lies ahead for this marvelous, unknowable, damaged young man? How much further will he go? Will he ever be able to lead an independent life?

Safe at City and Guilds, Stephen looks as if he will become the eternal postgraduate student, developing his printmaking skills and increasingly sophisticated photo-realist paintings. But there are limits to his learning. He cannot initiate projects, says Michael Buhler, and ‘lacks the ability to run with an idea'. Brilliant draughtsman that he is, he doesn't have the mental curiosity to push beyond the limits of his obsession and so it's impossible to judge him like any other art student.

Linda Pring, professor of psychology at Goldsmith's College London, who has made a study of the effect art training on Stephen's savant ability, believes what he does is creative ‘but at a level of perceptual and sensory experience'. Although his verbal IQ is now 82, compared with only 47 when he started at City and Guilds, autism will always restrict his artistic development. He can record the world but not interpret it. ‘Stephen often seems to lack both the initial creative impulse and the reflective assessment of what he does,' she reports. ‘So he is unable to judge his progress towards a goal and to recognise whether or not he has achieved it.'

As for personal goals, Oliver Sacks is perplexed. ‘I wonder what Stephen himself would want or hope for?' he asks. ‘I remember stopping at a drive-in cafe in Arizona and Stephen started to ogle two girls at a nearby table. He was fascinated by them, like any normal adolescent boy. He approached them and, of course, seemed pleasant. But what he said to them was so bizarre and inappropriate and childish that they began to giggle and turn away and they paid him not the slightest of attention after that. It was a very poignant incident.'

Annette, possibly the person who knows him bets is optimistic. ‘I am not sure how much more progress he can make,' she says. ‘But the lesson is never to underestimate him because you never know what he will do next. Stephen wants everything a normal young man would want. I don't know everything there is to know about him. He Is full of surprises.'

Her hope is that he will go on enjoying the life he has. Liberated from the early rage and frustration of not being able to express himself, he is a calmer person. ‘We protect him from the moral traumas of life,' she says. ‘He seems happier in our world. It's peaceful and playful and there is no hassle, no hurt. I try to be grateful for what we have all achieved. We've come far.'



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