Stephen Wiltshire: Remarkable Artist
Just a brief observation and entire cityscapes are drawn as finely detailed masterpieces — from memory.
An Exceptional Talent
Imagine flying over the world’s most memorable metropolitan cities, glimpsing the panorama below, imprinting the vision in your memory, and coming back to the studio to recreate in painstaking nuance, every detail, completely from memory. This is the innate talent of British artist, Stephen Wiltshire, now 45.
Like the character Dustin Hoffman played in Barry Levinson’s 1988 film, Rainman, British artist Stephen Wiltshire possesses some extraordinary and inexplicable abilities.
His remarkable artistic talent is linked to an equally remarkable and photographic memory. Researchers postulate that unique wiring between the two hemispheres of the brain allow certain people to access reserves of creativity, unavailable to most of us.
The Early Years
As a child, Wiltshire exhibited exceptional artistic abilities, even though he didn’t speak until the age of five, when he uttered his first word, “paper.” In school, he was fascinated with sketching images of wildlife, caricatures of his teachers, and the buildings and city buses he saw in downtown London.
A fortuitous visit to a friend’s 14thfloor apartment, where he looked down on the city below, set Wiltshire on a path to fulfilling his life’s destiny. At the time his sister Annette said, “his passion became obsessive.”At the age of eight, Wiltshire received his first commission, from the British prime minister, to create a drawing of Salisbury Cathedral. At ten, he created a series of pictures of London’s major buildings and landmarks, titled London Alphabet, recreating London’s landmarks from A –Z, from Albert Hall to the London Zoo. At 13, he published his first book of drawings.
The public and the media were fascinated by Wiltshire’s skills and talents. In February 1987, he appeared in the BBC television show, The Foolish Wise Ones. During his segment, Sir Hugh Casson, a former president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, called him “possibly the best child artist in Britain.” Later, Wiltshire studied Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School, followed by a one-year post-graduate course.
He produced several books, including Drawings (1987), Cities(1989), Floating Cities (1991) (which hit the top of The Times non-fiction bestseller list), and Stephen Wiltshire’s American Dream (1993), which recounts, in pictures, his visits to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and, of course, New York City, with which he fell in love.
Wiltshire is never without his pens and pencils, pencil case and his London doubledecker bus pencil sharpener. He carries his iPhone with which he shoots pictures of favorite buildings and landmarks and listens to R&B, Motown, 70s Disco, and the latest charts.
A Rare Talent
Using his memory to create mental snapshots, Wiltshire, the son of West-Indian parents, has created a legacy of incredibly detailed and complex cityscapes of the world’s largest cities, from Sydney, Singapore, and Shanghai, to Brisbane, Istanbul, Mexico City, and U.S. cities, including Houston, Chicago, and his all-time favorite — New York City.
Sometimes taking days to complete, Wiltshire reproduces all the detailed architecture, along with passing cars and other particulars in a recognizable manner, and with an innate grasp of perspective.
In Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, he created a 30-foot reproduction of the view below, after a short 20-minute helicopter ride.
His rendition of Tokyo was approximately 33-ft wide and took eight days to complete. Conversely, he did a quick sketch of the Empire State Building in two minutes.
His talent lies not only in mechanically reproducing the city in highly detailed perspective, but imbuing it with some feel and emotion.
“His assured draughtsmanship and ability to convey complex perspective with consummate ease make him unique,” wrote a critic. “These skills reveal his mysterious creative abilities to capture the sensibility of a building and that which determines its character and its voice.”
I Love New York
“I’m going to live in New York someday,” Wiltshire said after his visit. “I’ve designed my penthouse on Park Avenue.”
After taking a short helicopter ride around Manhattan, Wiltshire sketched the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and was introduced to famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat had just been published.
As a neurologist and author, Sacks was fascinated with people with unique abilities and was captivated by the duality of Wiltshire’s remarkable recall and artistic gifts. “The combination of great abilities with great disabilities presents an extraordinary paradox: how can such opposites live side by side?” Sacks later wrote in the foreword to Wiltshire’s second book.
When he was 19, Wiltshire’s musical talents emerged, including perfect pitch and an ability to innately understand “the rules of music.” He is also an accomplished pianist. To possess both natural talents in music and art is a double rarity.
Honors and Awards
In 2001, Wiltshire appeared in the BBC documentary, Fragments of Genius, for which he was filmed flying over London and subsequently completing a detailed and perfectly scaled aerial illustration of a four-square-mile area within three hours. His depiction included 12 historic landmarks and 200 other structures reproduced in exact, literal renditions.
In 2003, the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham, England, hosted a 20-year retrospective of Wiltshire’s works. In 2006, he received the Member of the Most Excellent Order (MBE) honor directly from Prince Charles for outstanding services to the art world.
Today, Wiltshire is one of Britain’s best-known artists. He runs his own London gallery. His commissions have a 4-8-month waiting list and his photograph welcomes visitors to Heathrow airport.
“Every now and then a rocket of young talent explodes and showers us with its sparks,” said the late Sir Hugh Casson. “Stephen Wiltshire is one of those rockets.” Click here to learn more about Stephen in our exclusive Q&A.
For more information on this incredible artist and his beautiful wonders of art, please visit stephenwiltshire.co.uk.