Images from an Untutored Hand Stephen Wiltshire's Special Abilities Have Thrust Him into England's Art-World Spotlight

Article excerpt

HE did not speak. The only sounds he made were strange, incoherent noises.

But most of the time the small boy was quiet. He did not laugh. He did not play. Instead, he sat for hours on end watching television, oblivious to anything else around him. Or he would scribble on bits of paper.

Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed as autistic. A particularly difficult case, he was sent at age 4 to a special school. His former headmistress, Lorraine Cole, recalls the severity of the isolation. "You only felt a little draft when he went past," as she puts it. "As far as he was concerned, you were just an object."

It was only when Stephen's teachers took a closer look at his scribbles that a chink in the wall appeared. They were pictures. More than that, they possessed certain qualities not usually associated with the immature efforts of a young child.

Children invariably use symbols when they draw, whereas Stephen was trying to capture exactly what he saw.

Working as a team, staff members decided to capitalize on this: Stephen was clearly, at some level, taking in and responding to the world around him. If, then, he wanted paper to sketch on - the one activity that appeared to ignite some spark - he was not permitted to just grab for it. He had to make a sound.

Words slowly, haltingly, followed, and the tantrums eventually ceased. It soon became evident he was artistically gifted. This talent began to flourish spectacularly, and with it, Stephen started to step out from behind his wall.

By age 12, Stephen was, according to the former president of the Royal Academy of Art, Sir Hugh Casson, "possibly the best child artist in Britain today." Now, at 17, he has had several exhibitions of his work.

His third book, "Floating Cities" (Michael Joseph, London), a collection of drawings based on recent visits to Italy, Holland, and the Soviet Union, immediately shot to the top of Britain's literary bestsellers' list earlier this year - an unheard-of feat for an art book.

Another volume, on American cities, is in progress. In addition, the teenager has a steady flow of pricy commissions - more than he has time to fulfill - which, if nothing else, means that his financial future is assured.

With art as the catalyst, his life is changing beyond anything those who knew him before could have ever imagined.

Stephen has never had an art lesson in his life, yet he draws with a sureness and fluidity that leaves observers breathless. His sense of perspective is faultless. Moreover, after a momentary glance at a building - the kind of thing he loves to draw the most - he can go away and much later re-create it in exacting detail.

While he cannot even so much as count, his pictures, with unerring accuracy, invariably include the correct number of windows, columns, or cupolas. He prefers, in fact, to draw from memory. Even if many days have gone by, Stephen does not forget.

THE teenage artist is known as an "autistic savant." He can read, but the sense of a passage usually eludes him. He can more often than not answer a question starting with "what," but ask "why" something is so, and one may well get a strange non sequitur.

My meeting with this unusual young man took place at the home of his agent, Margaret Hewson, in the Ladbroke Grove area of London. His 19-year-old sister, Annette, his only sibling, was also there for the simple reason that she goes with her brother virtually everywhere; along with his mother, she is devoted to Stephen.

When I entered the Hewsons' living room, Stephen was sitting at a nearby dining table, sketching from a book on the buildings of Chicago.

He was intensely focused on his work. Conversations do not hold his attention for very long, but give him a pen and pad, and he is difficult to budge. …