The British literary agent Margaret Hewson, who deceased in 2002, had known Stephen since he was thirteen. Once Margaret had discovered Stephen’s special and fascinating talent, their mutual friendship evolved from shared walks, where they inspected surrounding buildings, to extensive study trips. Over the following years, Margaret took him all around the world to enjoy humanity’s greatest architectural achievements. “He was a child with an extraordinary talent and enormous deficits. A true mystery”, noted Mrs. Hewson.
A mystery otherwise known as savant syndrome. Most savants are autistic, yet few exhibit such ingenious specialist skills. At the time of writing, scientists know of less than 25 people around the world who possess such extraordinary talents.
Stephen was born in London in 1974. A quiet, almost disinterested child to the outside world, he found it hard to establish social and emotional contacts and connections. At the tender age of five, he began to draw and this soon became his personal outlet for communication with the world – Stephen only learned to speak aged nine. At the same time, the unusual child soon embarked on what was to become his career. Ambitious teachers and passionate supporters recognized his outstanding talent and encouraged the autistic boy to explore it. Stephen went on to receive numerous awards and recognitions: His third book, Floating Cities – published when he was just sixteen years old – was described by David Gritten of the Los Angeles Times as follows: “[The book] illustrates Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to capture not only a building’s detail; he has an innate sense of perspective and can also convey the mood a building evokes. Thus, his Kremlin Palace in Moscow looks forbidding and imposing; his St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, with its multicolored cluster of onion domes, seems to spring from a fantasy.”
Now, the charismatic artist literally draws himself around the world. And among his impressive oeuvre, the outsized panoramas of metropolises and mega cities stand out. Sometimes, even brief helicopter rides suffice to provide Stephen with the necessary visual information. He has already created several panoramic views; starting with Tokyo in 2005 and followed by cities like Rome, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, London, and New York – all drawn on giant canvasses. His latest stops: Sydney, Shanghai, and Brisbane.
Scientists and medical professionals are equally stunned by the sheer wealth and depth of detail Stephen manages to retain and reproduce. Yet this, on its own, does not comprise the ‘Stephen Wiltshire phenomenon.’ While his meticulous love of the tiniest detail has made him popular, people also adore his style. By now, his art has become a performance. Fans flock to his live drawings and celebrate the quiet Brit like a star.
Stephen himself remains resolutely unimpressed by all the fuss and bustle around him – his focus remains on the illustration itself, completely immersed in his images and actions.
And his exceptional talent has given a new face to autism, a condition society tends to consider a cognitive disability. Stephen Wiltshire might not even know it, but he has dispelled at least some preconceptions people often associate with this condition.
In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II honored Stephen’s achievements with an MBE, making him a member of the Order of the British Empire – a title he now wears with pride.
Text: Agi Habryka
All the photos, incl. the header image (Stephen Wiltshire draws Monaco): By courtesy of The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery