Autistic man with prodigious eye for art opens own gallery

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The Independent Online

An artist who overcame severe autism to win international recognition has opened his own gallery, where he will be resident three days a week.

The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery at the Royal Opera Arcade in Pall Mall, London, will be dedicated to the work of the artist who came to public attention 19 years ago when he appeared in the television documentary, The Foolish Wise Ones.

He astonished observers with his capacity to draw exceptionally accurate pictures of buildings and scenes after just one look. He once produced a view of central London after a helicopter ride overhead. Wiltshire was born to West Indian parents in London in 1974. He was mute as a child and diagnosed as autistic, but when he started school, he expressed an interest in drawing. Art became his means of communication, and he began to draw imaginary landscapes and cars.

After Wiltshire's burst of fame, Sir Hugh Casson, the late president of the Royal Academy, introduced the boy to his agent.

"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," Sir Hugh said in the introduction to Drawings, the artist's first book.

Wiltshire was taken on trips all over the world and a trust was established to manage the fees and royalties from his work.

He has appeared in many documentaries as an example of an "autistic savant," one of a handful whose autism goes hand-in-hand with prodigious skills, and three years ago a major retrospective of his work was mounted in Twickenham, London. He was made an MBE in 2003.

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist whose work became famous through the film Awakenings, profiled Wiltshire in his book, An Anthropologist on Mars.

He described tourists watching him work in Red Square, Moscow. "They saw a funny little boy, on a little stool, pretending to draw ... and then, as the Spassky Tower began to take shape, as Stephen's masterly draughtsmanship and grasp of perspective became manifest, as the first outline was filled with rich, confident detail, they ceased to be desultory, they were arrested, they stopped in wonder..." he said.

Annette Wiltshire, Stephen's sister, said they thought it was time he had his own gallery and he was very proud of it. "He comes three days a week and he sits and does his drawings and sometimes paintings or commissioned work. He loves the fact that people come in and greet him and praise him," she said.

"As a family, we're quite protective and we would never have Stephen do anything he doesn't want to do. But he handles the public so well."