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