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'.''

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Travel
Fair trade: the idea of honesty boxes relies on people paying their way
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary