By Darold Treffert, MD
In February 1987, the BBC aired a program on Savant Syndrome entitled The Foolish Wise Ones. One segment featured a then 12-year old autistic boy, Stephen Wiltshire, drawing from memory on camera a remarkably accurate sketch of St. Pancras station which he had visited for the first time only briefly several hours before. As the camera recorded, he quickly and assuredly drew the elaborate and complicated building exactly as he had seen it with the clock hands set at precisely 11:20, the hour he had viewed them.
There were hundreds of calls and letters to the BBC following that broadcast seeking a source to purchase originals of Stephen’s astonishing work. That initial interest and then a sustained demand for the drawings led to the publication of an entire volume of his works entitled Drawings (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, London, 1987).
In the introduction to Drawings, Sir Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy, says of Stephen: “Happily, every now and then, a rocket of young talent explodes and continues to shower us with its sparks. Stephen Wiltshire — who was born with severe speech difficulties — is one of those rockets.” He then describes the artistic brilliance further: “His sense of perspective seems to be faultless… I’ve never seen in all my competition drawing such a talent, such a natural and extraordinary talent, that this child seems to have… (Stephen) is possibly the best child artist in Britain.”
Stephen concentrates almost exclusively on architecture. He provides exact, literal renditions of any building, no matter how complex, and in fact he seems to prefer the especially intricate. He views buildings, in person or from a photograph, and retains an exquisitely precise and detailed image for later recall and drawing. Additionally, he can sense and draw a building, no matter how complex, with a three-dimensional perspective from a two-dimensional photo.
Like other savant artists, Stephen’s work depicts exactly what he sees without embellishment, stylization, or interpretation. He makes no notes; impressions are indelibly and faithfully inscribed from a single exposure for later recall and he draws swiftly, beginning anywhere on the page. Thus, like Alonzo Clemons and Richard Wawro, his remarkable artistic ability is linked to an equally remarkable memory.
At age 10, Stephen drew what he called a “London Alphabet,” a group of drawings from Albert Hall to the London Zoo with structures such as the House of Parliament and The Imperial War Museum in between. An exquisite sense of perspective is demonstrated in a drawing he titles “Looking down the lift shaft and stairs,” and his drawing of Buckingham Palace is a spectacular example of Stephen’s intricacy and accuracy.
Stephen is, by any standards, an extraordinary artist, but what about his handicap? Stephen started attending Queensmill, a school in London for children with special needs, at the age of 5, as an extremely withdrawn and almost mute child. He existed in the world of his own so typically described in autistic youngsters. He was distant, preoccupied, had little or no eye contact and often roamed about classrooms aimlessly, sometimes staring for long times at pictures, then suddenly dashing from room to room. He would absorb himself for long periods of time with scribbling on scraps of paper.
In school he did learn to read and began to immerse himself for hours in books on architecture and travel. Simultaneously he developed some language, but it remained difficult and sparse. He was characterized by the headmistress of the special school as having a “gentle personality, humor and curious dignity.” Overall he was described as eminently likable and far from detracting from his general development, his art seemingly aided it. While there was some fear that acquisition of language and other skills might, like Nadia, rob him of his genius, that has not been the case at all. Instead, like with Leslie and Alonzo, Stephen’s special skills and overall social development have progressed simultaneously. The blossoming of his genius has coincided with the blossoming of his personality.
Stephen has produced three additional books including Cities ( J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1989) and Floating Cities (Summit Books, New York, 1991). The latter became a “#1 best seller” in England with remarkable drawings of Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad and Moscow. His most recent book, Stephen Wiltshire’s American Dream (Michael Joseph, London, 1993) was devoted to U.S. architecture and the desert landscape of Arizona.
In the summer of 1993 an additional talent of Stephen’s — music — was quite unexpectedly discovered. While Stephen had always liked to listen to music, and to sing, always in tune and often imitating other great singers, to his music teacher’s surprise it was discovered Stephen had perfect pitch and considerable talent as a musical savant with some of the innate sense of the ‘rules of music’ characteristic of such savants. While simultaneous skills in several areas have been reported in some other savants, such multiple skills are really very rare in an already rare condition. Stephen shows much prowess in both music and art. Stephen’s story, and a fuller description of his art and music abilities, can be found in his books and also described in Oliver Sack’s 1995 book An Anthropologist on Mars.
Perhaps the most striking and astonishing display of Stephen’s remarkable visual memory and drawing ability occurs in a segment on a 2001 BBC documentary entitled Fragments of Genius. In this segment, Stephen is taken on a helicopter ride over the city of London. After a brief ride, he returns to the ground where, in three hours, he completes a stunningly detailed and remarkably accurate drawing of London from the air which spans four square miles with 12 major landmarks and 200 other buildings drawn to perfect perspective and scale. Words cannot describe the prodigious ability and visual memory that drawing documents; it needs to be seen to be appreciated.
In 2006, with the encouragement of his sister, Stephen Wiltshire founded his own permanent art gallery in London's Royal Opera Arcade.
Read more about Stephen Wiltshire at https://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/index.aspx
Sacks, O. (1995). An anthropologist on Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. London: Picador.
Wiltshire, S. (1991). Floating cities: Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad, and Moscow. New York: Summit Books.
Wiltshire, S. (1993). Stephen Wiltshire's American dream. London: Michael Joseph.
Wiltshire, S., & Casson, H. (1990). Drawings. London: Dent.
Wiltshire, S., De, N. M., & Orleans House Gallery. (2003). Not a camera: The unique vision of Stephen Wiltshire. London: Orleans House Gallery.