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Home » Stephen Wiltshire: An Autistic Artist with a Remarkable Gift

Stephen Wiltshire: An Autistic Artist with a Remarkable Gift

Stephen Wiltshire: An Autistic Artist with a Remarkable Gift

By Nils Skudra

In studying the lives of Autistic prodigies, I recently learned about Stephen Wiltshire, a British artist of West Indian descent who has earned international renown for his detailed cityscape sketches, drawn entirely from photographic memory. These drawings have become immensely popular throughout the world and are featured in a variety of museums and private and public art collections. I felt that Stephen’s life would be a fascinating topic to profile since there is a widely held perception of Autistic celebrities as primarily white men, while people of color with Autism typically receive very little coverage. Because people of color tend to be diagnosed with Autism at a significantly lower rate than whites, Stephen Wiltshire’s remarkable career offers a shining example of how Autistic prodigies come from a wide variety of backgrounds and can achieve international acclaim for their creative endeavors.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 30: British artist Stephen Wiltshire sits with his detailed sketch of the Sydney cityscape during a press conference at Customs House on April 30, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. Diagnosed with autism at the age of three, 36-year-old Wiltshire has the ability to draw detailed cityscapes from memory after observing them briefly. Wiltshire was invited to Australia by Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) as part of Autism Month. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Stephen Wiltshire was born in London to West Indian parents on April 24, 1974. During his childhood, he was nonverbal and could not relate to other people. At the age of three, he was diagnosed with Autism, and his parents observed that he lived entirely in his own world. However, during his attendance at the Queensmill School in London, the faculty noticed that Stephen’s favorite pastime was drawing, making it clear that he communicated with the broader world through the medium of art. As Stephen’s official website notes, “These drawings show a masterful perspective, a whimsical line, and reveal a natural innate artistry.”

The instructors at Queensmill subsequently encouraged Stephen to speak by temporarily taking away his art supplies, in the hope that he would ask for them to be returned. This prompted Stephen to respond by making sounds and ultimately utter his first word – “paper.” This breakthrough eventually led to Stephen learning to speak fully at the age of nine. While his early drawings depicted animals and cars, Stephen soon developed an interest in sketching London buildings, which inspired one of his teachers to accompany Stephen on his drawing excursions and enter Stephen’s work in children’s art competitions. Stephen’s success garnered attention from the local press, which expressed both amazement and suspicion as to how a child of Stephen’s age could produce such elaborately detailed artwork.

The media interest in Stephen’s work soon became nationwide, leading to his receipt of a commission from the British Prime Minister to create a drawing of Salisbury Cathedral at the age of 8. In February 1987, he appeared in the show, “The Foolish Wise Ones,” in which Hugh Casson, a former president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, described Stephen as “possibly the best child artist in Britain.” Casson subsequently introduced Stephen to literary agent Margaret Hewson, who became a trusted mentor and helped Stephen publish his first book, Drawings (1987), which featured his early sketches with a preface by Casson. With her support, he made his first trip abroad to New York City, where he sketched the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. During his time in New York, Stephen met Oliver Sacks, who would ultimately write extensively about Stephen’s unique talents.

Stephen’s drawings from his New York visit – together with those of sites in the London Docklands, Paris and Ediburgh – formed the basis for his second book, Cities (1989), which also included drawings of imaginary metropolises that Stephen had envisioned. His international renown grew as he traveled around the world on a drawing tour of Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad, and Moscow, attracting crowds wherever Stephen stopped to draw. On the quality of his artwork, Stephen’s official website states, “These drawings testify to an assured draftsmanship and an ability to convey complex perspective with consummate ease. But more importantly, they reveal his mysterious creative ability to capture the sensibility of a building and that which determines its character and its voice. It is this voice which sets him apart and confers upon him the status of artist.”

Throughout his career, Stephen has drawn numerous cityscapes across the world, capturing cities such as Singapore, Istanbul, Mexico City and Doha, Qatar. With the encouragement of his sister Annette and her husband, he founded his own permanent Art Gallery in London’s Royal Opera Arcade, which eventually moved to West London in 2019. Stephen’s new private Art Studio, located in Chelsea Harbour, London, welcomes his art collectors on an appointment-only basis. His awards have included the prestigious title of Member of the Order of the British Empire, bestowed by the late Queen Elizabeth II in January 2006. “It’s an absolute honour,” Annette reflected. “It brought tears to my Mum’s eyes and to mine, because we’ve all worked so hard for Stephen.”

Stephen’s artistic gifts are highly unique since he possesses a photographic memory, which enhances his ability to capture cityscapes in minute detail after flying over them for observation. This is illustrative of the traits that are often found among people on the Autism spectrum since they can memorize certain images or information very rapidly. Together with a strong detail orientation, this can be an asset for Autistic individuals in their academic, professional, or artistic pursuits. Furthermore, Stephen’s story is particularly significant since there is a strong public misconception of Autism as being associated primarily with white people. Because of this, children of color tend to be diagnosed with Autism at a much lower rate than white children, which can have serious repercussions since they are denied access to Autism resources and services that white families have the benefit of utilizing.

Consequently, Stephen’s example can hopefully provide an incentive for further interest and investment in providing Autism resources to people of color who display Autistic tendencies. Finally, his success as an artist can serve as a source of inspiration for people on the Autism spectrum of diverse backgrounds to pursue their goals, in accordance with his motto, “Do the best you can and never stop.”

Nils Skudra

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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