Honour for autistic man who speaks through art

For most artists, being appointed an MBE in the New Year Honours List would be a moment, at the very least, of pleasure at being officially applauded by the establishment.

But in the case of Stephen Wiltshire, the moment was somewhat anticlimactic. "I don't think it really made much impression on him, probably because we interrupted him in the middle of watching the television,'' his older sister, Annette, disclosed. "The rest of us in the family were, of course, ecstatic.''

That is because Wiltshire, 31, suffers from autism, an inability to interact with the outside world by conventional means. But that has not stopped him from becoming one of the country's most successful, but paradoxically least well-known, artists. Significantly, his citation reads: "For services to art' - there is no mention of his disability. And despite his nonchalance at the award, he will be going to Buckingham Palace to receive his gong accompanied, by his mother, Geneva, and other members of his family, who have cared for him all his life.

As an autistic savant, he is one of the 10 per cent of autism sufferers who also have extraordinary abilities, such as powers of memory, mathematical calculation or musical and artistic talents. Wiltshire's speciality is intricate and fantastically detailed drawings of buildings and cityscapes, which has earned him a large following, packed out exhibitions and led to bestselling books. His prints sell for several hundred pounds each via his website.

Yet his success has provoked a debate within the art world that mirrors that over the artist Jack Vettriano as to whether his work really qualifies as "art", or is simply a stylised copying.

Dr Oliver Sacks, the renowned psychologist, summed up the issue when he described Wiltshire in his 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars: "I thought how unlike a Xerox machine he was. His pictures in no sense resembled copies or photographs, something mechanical and impersonal - there were always additions, subtractions, revisions, and, of course, Stephen's unmistakable style ... Stephen's drawings were individual constructions, but could they be seen, in a deeper sense, as creations?''

And now, some have used his award as a stick with which to beat contemporary British artists such as Damien Hirst. "At last,'' said the Daily Mail yesterday, "an artist [underlined] who deserves an honour.''

Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters magazine, said it was wrong to adopt either view. "I wish people would not use him as a means to justify criticism of Damien Hirst and others. There is room enough for everyone and his is a voice that will be heard by those who perhaps do not wish to hear that of Hirst. But that doesn't mean they both cannot exist.''

She said she believed Wiltshire was a better artist than Vettriano. "I think it is very interesting. There is definitely a voice there, a talent which stands on its own, irrespective of his disability," she said.

It was particularly interesting, she added, that during his period at the City and Guilds Art School in south London, where he has been a student for the past four years, he had retained his own style, rather than be tempted by others.

Wiltshire's life now, which recently included a trip to Hong Kong on a private commission, is a far cry from his earlier years. Born into a family of West Indian origin in north London, he spent his childhood locked in his own private world, unable to communicate with others. His condition became worse after the death of his father when he was just three years old.

Despite the success, his life remains constrained. "While he is very independent and sociable, he still needs to have the reassurance that one of his family is around," said his sister.

He is not just a remarkable artist. A piano player for 10 years, Wiltshire also has a pitch-perfect voiceand sings everything from opera to Elvis. His sister said: "He surprises us all the time over the way he is developing. When people ask me what Stephen can do next, all I say is 'watch this space'.''

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker