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'.''

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk