These remarkable pictures of London, published for the first time in the Evening Standard today, are by Stephen Wiltshire. The 36 –year-old from Maida Vale is famous worldwide for his intricate architectural drawings and city panoramas – often drawn from memory and at great speed – and for his triumph over the neural condition that rendered him incommunicative as a child.
For these pictures Stephen was invited by the City of
London Corporation to three locations normally closed to the public: the roof of the 43-storey, residential Cromwell Tower at the Barbican, the Old Bailey and the ‘battle merit’ terraces of Tower Bridge.
Stephen is a boyishly handsome, stylish young man with a permanent half-smile on his face. Although some people with autism have problems with social interaction, he is friendly and impeccably polite. From the exposed concrete roof of Cromwell Tower, we can see from Primrose Hill to the Crystal Palace transmitter, Wembley Stadium to the Olympic site. Stephen looks, takes some photographs, then starts sketching at blinding speed with an ordinary HB pencil.
I can see the Shard of Glass going up, which is my favourite building because it has a pyramid shape, and Strata, the new residential tower (at Elephant and Castle),’ he says, ‘I like buildings that are nice and shiny and new. But I also like London landmarks – St Paul’s, Big Ben, Tower Bridge – which I’d do memory drawings of as a kid.’ On his pad, the skyline takes shape in seconds, and he briskly sketches in the glazed expanse of the City Point Building. ‘I’ll probably get the number of windows right,’ he says.
Stephen talks happily and openly as he draws about his family home: ‘I live in the flat where I was born with my mum.’ He talks about music – he sings soul standards and plays piano; he has perfect pitch – and his love of films such as Saturday Night Fever and Rain Man. He has seen both several times.
Although Stephen knows that Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man is autistic and has watched himself in television programmes devoted to his condition, he does not know that he is autistic. He responds with better questions with yes/no answers than to anything vague or conceptual. If a line of inquiry troubles him, he mildly says ‘It’s hard for me to think about that now’ and tuns back to his drawing.
As a boy, Stephen was silent apart from terrible, wordless tantrums. His mother, Geneva is a seamstress from St Lucia. His father Colvin, an electrical engineer from Barbados, was killed in a motorcycle accident when Stephen was three. ‘It was my father who realised something wasn’t right as he wasn’t bonding as well with Stephen as he had with me,’ says his sister Annette, 38, who helps run the central London gallery dedicated to Stephen’s work. ‘Stephen was diagnosed aged three, and it was very hard for my mum after my dad died. In those days no one really knew what autism was. We were lucky to find Queensmill school.’
Teacher at the specialist school in Fulham fostered Stephen’s flair for drawing and by briefly removing his art materials, got him to say his first word: ‘Paper.’ They used his love of buildings to teach him the alphabet: A for Albert Hall, B for Buckingham Palace, and so on. He learned to speak to speak fluently aged nine, and his tendency – as he puts it – to ‘have tantrums and throw drawings away if I made a mistake’ began to abate. In his teens, Stephen came to wider attention through a TV programme about gifted autistic people, and through friendships with Sir Hugh Casson, the psychologist Oliver Sacks and agent Margaret Hewson, who secured a deal for his first book of artworks.
After leaving school in 1990, he took a foundation course at the Architectural Association, then an art degree at City and Guilds. By this stage he had learned to negotiate public transport on his own. Demand for his works grew after he produced a detailed panorama, covering four square miles including the City of London, after a single 15-minute helicopter flight in 2001. He has since drawn panoramas of Rome, Hong Kong, Dubai and New York among others, and a 10-metre long canvas of Tokyo, but drew his last in Sydney last year: ‘It’s very labour intensive: my arms get quite tired.’
In 2006 Stephen was honoured with an MBE for services to art and opened his gallery and studio in John Nash’s Royal Opera Arcade off Pall Mall. It’s a place where he can draw in natural light and interact with fans without being overwhelmed by crowds. Working at the gallery two days a week gives him structure two days, as do his weekly piano lessons and his regular art courses at City and Guilds. He has branched out into portraits and oil paintings. Prices for his work go from £50 for a print to £22,500 for a nocturnal view of London: private commissions are negotiable. There is a waiting list.
‘Stephen surprises us all the time with what he is capable of,’ says Annette. ‘He is very self-sufficient at home: he cleans his own room and cooks his own meals. We were in Bermuda recently, to raise awareness [of autism] and open the new National Gallery with a drawing by Stephen. He was asked to make a speech. Although he wasn't expecting it he did it extempore, and at the end turned round and thanked me and my husband for giving him the gallery and said he loved us very much. It brought tears to my eyes because he is not a man who often shows his feelings.’
‘As a family we have never felt that his autism should dominate or define who he is, or what he could do with his life. And in a way he’s my inspiration because he’s totally himself and totally honest about what he wants. Life would be easier if we were all like that.’
As if to illustrate Annette’s point, when we walk into the domed and frescoed Grand Hall of the Old Bailey, Stephen says simply: ‘Not interested.’ It seems he is less keen on interiors, especially classical ones. But from a sniper’s post on the roof, he executes and evocative, detailed sketch of St Paul’s in five minutes. On the way to Tower Bridge I glance through his sketchbook; it is full of things he loves – streetscapes, buildings, American cars and fire engines, slim blondes and men in Eighties fashions. At the top of the bridge, he executes an immaculate cityscape, from Guy’s Hospital to St Paul’s, HMS Belfast standing proud on the river in the centre.
A few days later, I visit Stephen at his studio. Working by eye or using his thumb and forefinger, he rapidly translates the pencil lines in his sketchbook to ink on an A4 pad. Not long after that, scans of three completed sketches arrive. It’s a marvel to look at them, and a privilege to have witnessed their conception. It’s a privilege, too, to have met Stephen Wiltshire.