Stephen Wiltshire's rendering of the London skyline
The quite remarkable talents of the London-born artist Stephen Wiltshire, who was awarded an MBE for his 'services to art' two years ago, are to be celebrated this week in a television documentary about extraordinary people.
In particular, the Channel Five programme shows the young black artist, 34 later this month, drawing a 13ft long panorama in pen, ink and pencil of a seven mile stretch of the London skyline after just one brief helicopter trip along the Thames - and doing so in just five days.
In the huge curving canvas, which was completed at the Mayor of London's office, almost every major building in the city is drawn to scale - from the Swiss Re Tower (better known as the Gherkin), to the high rises of Canary Wharf - with the number of floors and architectural features all recaptured in precise detail.
It is no mean feat for a young artist who is autistic, a condition memorably brought to life by Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning film Rain Man. Indeed, like Hoffman's film persona, Wiltshire is also a 'savant', a man trapped in his own private world but with an exceptional talent, said to be one of only 100 diagnosed throughout the world.
Someone who has watched his career over the past 15 years or more, I've long known that there was much more going on in Stephen Wiltshire's creative process than simply acting as a camera. As the neurologist and psychologist Dr Oliver Sacks, who's also monitored his career so far, puts it: 'His pictures in no sense resemble copies or photographs, something mechanical and impersonal - there are always additions, subtractions, revisions, and, of course, Stephen's unmistakable style.'
So, if you look closely at Wiltshire's drawings of the London skyline - and compare them with the photographs specially taken by the Mail of exactly the same views - you will see that time after time he adds or subtracts details from his drawings.
Take the building just to the right of the HSBC bank tower block at Canary Wharf, for example.
You'll see that it is significantly lower in Wiltshire's drawing than it is in real life, just as you'll notice that he has deliberately moved a tower block away from the left side of the Gherkin, and that he's shifted the Post Office Tower significantly, as well as increasing the size of St Paul's Cathedral.
'Stephen isn't some form of performing chimp that pulls off a party trick by drawing buildings in detail purely from memory,' a close friend explains. 'He is an artist with his own distinctive and creative vision of the world, just as Canaletto was when he recreated Venice in such perfect detail.'
But the artist himself remains unmoved by any debate about his talent.
When I went to see him in his tiny gallery, not far from Trafalgar Square, last weekend, he was as calm and collected as he always is - and anxious to talk to me about his latest work. Mind you, talking to Stephen has never been exactly straightforward - there can be Rain Man-like pauses in the conversation, as well as the odd non-sequitur - but then it's not far short of a miracle than he can converse at all.
As a little boy born to West Indian parents, he was all but mute and barely uttered a word until he was seven.
He could not bring himself even to look into his mother Geneva's eye and found all human contact almost impossible - especially after his father Colvin's death in a motorcycle accident shortly before his third birthday. He would just sit in a corner, rocking back and forth, screaming from time to time.
The only thing that seemed to pacify his tantrums was pencil and paper - which led to his nickname of 'the drawer' when he went to school.
Stephen today is a revelation. Even five years ago he found talking to me quite difficult, but now he is transformed.
So when I ask him what he's been listening to on his iPod on the way into his London gallery from his home in Maida Vale, west London, he replies without a moment's hesitation: 'Radio One, I like the music,' and when I ask if he still likes dancing, one of his favourite hobbies, he says 'sure' with his typical, charming, slightly distant smile.
He also does excellent John Travolta impressions given half a chance. But it's his sketch book that brings him to life. Let me show you, he enthuses as he disappears into the gallery's basement to fetch it.
Between its battered black covers, the pages offer a stunning insight into his world.
Yes, there are drawings of office blocks all over London, and London buses, which have always been one of his fascinations, just as there are drawings of spectacular American cars from the 1970s, another of his passions. But there are also a lot of drawings of young women - all of them clothed and all of them apparently based on American television series like the OC and Beverly Hills 90210. Do you ever have a live model? I ask him.
He smiles again, but looks down before shaking his head. 'I see them on television,' he says softly, as if that's enough.
The truth is that, in spite of his autism, this warm, gentle man with limpid brown eyes and long languid fingers is no longer utterly isolated from the world.
Sitting in the gallery, with his older sister Annette's hands on his shoulders for moral support, he looks at ease with himself for the first time, as though he could even imagine an independent life of his own - an idea that no one would have considered possible a decade ago.
'They told us he would always need a carer, never be able to travel alone, never cook or look after himself,' Annette, who is 35, told me. 'But that's not the case at all now. He's become very confident, and he loves London. Stephen gives hope to all autistic children, and their parents.' Indeed, he even has one or two female admirers. 'Though that can be a bit difficult,' confesses one old friend. 'He still lives with his mum, Geneva, and she can be a little protective.'
Not that Wiltshire has much time for a personal life.
His commercial interests are looked after by his sister and her husband Zoltan Szipola, who runs the gallery. He travels relentlessly. This week, for example, he is in Dubai looking at the new Burj tower and the other building works there as part of a commission. Later this month there is a trip to Jerusalem, then to New York and Las Vegas, a trip to Beijing for the Olympics, another to Montreal, Canada in the autumn - and in between, an invitation to draw the new Terminal Five at Heathrow.
In recent years he has branched out into colour, and there are two vibrant examples in his gallery, a drawing of the London skyline at night, featuring the London Eye, and another of Times Square in New York. The London skyline is priced at £12,500.
Wiltshire may not be in the Damien Hirst class when it comes to making millions from his work but he is nevertheless a successful artist now, who gets commissions from around the world. There may be some in the art establishment who question the extent of his talent but the public have taken to him to their hearts.
Thousands attended his last public retrospective exhibition in 2003 and his four published books of drawings have all been best-sellers, with one, Floating Cities, about Amsterdam, Venice and Leningrad, reaching Number One.
For the simple fact is that Wiltshire's work is accessible to an audience and he is technically brilliant.
'Every now and then a rocket of young talent explodes and showers us with its sparks,' the late Sir Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy, insisted not long before his death. 'Stephen Wiltshire is one of those rockets.'
There is no doubt whatever that he is an extraordinary artist. If you doubt it, go and visit him in his gallery and ask, very politely, to see his sketchbook.