Stephen Wiltshire is an artist who draws and paints detailed cityscapes. He has a particular talent for drawing lifelike, accurate representations of cities, sometimes after having only observed them briefly. He was awarded an MBE for services to the art world in 2006. He studied Fine Art at City & Guilds Art College. His work is popular all over the world, and is held in a number of important collections.
Stephen was born in London, United Kingdom to West Indian parents on 24th April, 1974. As a child he was mute, and did not relate to other people. Aged three, he was diagnosed as autistic. He had no language and lived entirely in his own world.
At the age of five, Stephen was sent to Queensmill School in London, where it was noticed that the only pastime he enjoyed was drawing. It soon became apparent he communicated with the world through the language of drawing; first animals, then London buses, and finally buildings. These drawings show a masterful perspective, a whimsical line, and reveal a natural innate artistry.
The instructors at Queensmill School encouraged him to speak by temporarily taking away his art supplies so that he would be forced to ask for them. Stephen responded by making sounds and eventually uttered his first word – “paper.” He learned to speak fully at the age of nine. His early illustrations depicted animals and cars; he is still extremely interested in american cars and is said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them. When he was about seven, Stephen became fascinated with sketching landmark London buildings.
One of Stephen’s teachers took a particular interest in him, who later accompanied his young student on drawing excursions and entered his work in children’s art competitions, many of which garnered Stephen awards. The local press became increasingly suspicious as to how a young child could produce such masterful drawings.
The media interest soon turned nationwide and the 7 year old Stephen Wiltshire made his first steps to launch his lifelong career. The same year he sold his first work and by the time he turned 8, he received his first commission from the British Prime Minister to create a drawing of Salisbury Cathedral.
In February 1987 Stephen appeared in The Foolish Wise Ones. (The show also featured savants with musical and mathematical talents.) During his segment Hugh Casson, a former president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, referred to him as “possibly the best child artist in Britain.”
Casson introduced Stephen to Margaret Hewson, a literary agent who helped Stephen field incoming book deals and soon became a trusted mentor. She helped Stephen publish his first book, Drawings (1987), a volume of his early sketches that featured a preface by Casson. Hewson, known for her careful stewardship of her clients’ financial interests, made sure a trust was established in Stephen’s name so that his fees and royalties were used wisely.
Hewson arranged Stephen’s first trip abroad, to New York City, where he sketched such legendary skyscrapers as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, as part of a feature being prepared by the London-based International Television News. While in New York Stephen met Oliver Sacks.
Sacks was fascinated by the young artist, and the two struck up a long friendship; Sacks would ultimately write extensively about Stephen. The resulting illustrations from his visit – along with sketches of sites in the London Docklands, Paris, and Edinburgh – formed the basis for his second book, Cities (1989), which also included some drawings of purely imaginary metropolises.
At about this time Stephen embarked on a drawing tour of Venice, Amsterdam, Leningrad, and Moscow, attracting crowds wherever he stopped to draw. He was accompanied part of the time by Sacks, who was conducting research for a new book on Stephen’s story. These drawings testify to an assured draughtsmanship and an ability to convey complex perspective with consummate ease. But more importantly, they reveal his mysterious creative ability to capture the sensibility of a building and that which determines its character and its voice. It is this genius which sets him apart and confers upon him the status of artist. His third book, Floating Cities (1991), contains the elaborate drawings he made on the tour.
In 1992 Stephen accepted the invitation of a Tokyo-based television company to tour Japan and make drawings of various landmark structures, including the Tokyo metropolitan government building, in Shinjuku, and the Ginza shopping district. He then traveled to America once again, a trip that resulted in the book American Dream (1993), which featured cityscapes of Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, as well as the desert landscape of Arizona.
Meanwhile, Stephen’s artwork was being exhibited frequently in venues all over the world.
In 2001 he appeared in another BBC documentary, Fragments of Genius, for which he was filmed flying over London aboard a helicopter and subsequently completing a detailed and perfectly scaled aerial illustration of a four-square-mile area within three hours; his drawing included 12 historic landmarks and 200 other structures.
In late 2003 the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham, England, held the first major retrospective of Wiltshire’s works, spanning a period of 20 years; more than 40,000 visitors attended the exhibit, shattering the gallery’s attendance records.
Stephen took on his largest project to date in May 2005, when he returned to Tokyo to make a panoramic drawing – the largest of his career – of the city. Two months later he drew a similarly detailed picture of Rome, including the Vatican and St. Peter’s Cathedral, entirely from memory.
In December, after a 20-minute helicopter ride, Stephen spent a week creating a 10-meter-long drawing of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and the surrounding urban scene. (He dedicated the work as a Christmas present to the city’s residents.) Later on he added Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem and London to his collection.
The following drawing in the series was of his spiritual home, New York where he embarked a five day marathon drawing on a 6 metres canvas live on television.
Further trips followed to Syndey, Shanghai, Brisbane, Singapore and Istanbul later.
Contrary to the popular misconception that Stephen is only interested in capturing architecture and classic american cars, he often draws portraits of celebrities and close friends in his private sketchbook. Stephen started creating caricatures of his teachers at primary school, and has since then produced many caricature ‘snap shots’ documenting amusing incidents encountered on his trips abroad as well.
Stephen Wiltshire’s passion for buildings, citiscapes and skylines continuously inspires him to revisit his favourite cities as well as discover new destinations while travelling the world. In a recent interview in New York he revealed that the most intriguing qualities of an exciting city must have ‘chaos and order at the same time, the avenues and squares, skyscrapers as well as traffic jams, the chaotic rush hour and people’.
In January 2006 it was announced that Stephen was being named by Queen Elizabeth II as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of his services to the art world. “It’s an absolute honour,” his sister, Annette, told Geoffrey Wansell for the London Daily Mail (January 3, 2006). “It brought tears to my Mum’s eyes and to mine, because we’ve all worked so hard for Stephen.”
Later that year, with the encouragement of Annette and her husband, Zoltan, Stephen Wiltshire founded his own permanent art gallery in London’s Royal Opera Arcade, London’s oldest shopping arcade.
In July 2014, Stephen was commissioned by Singapore PH to create a panoramic drawing of the city, which became part of the National Collection of Singapore to celebrate the nation’s 50th birthday.
150,000 visitors attend his exhibition in just 5 days, setting an attendance record in the history of the country.
His motto remains, “Do the best you can and never stop.”