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Tuesday 1 December 2020

Collection Focus – The Man Who Drew Our House

David, one of our Study Gallery volunteers, takes us through the story of this familiar scene of the gallery, drawn by an exceptional artist.

The Study Room in Orleans House features a whole array of exhibits.

But in my somewhat stuttering tenure as a docent in that room, there is one which is often overlooked by visitors. Richard Burton is the most attractive draw in the room. Some people have heard of him, some haven’t. Some ask if he was the one married to Elizabeth Taylor but when his Victorian era is spotted, that question is rapidly withdrawn.

But have a look on the opposite side of the room just between the windows on a shelf. There you will find a nondescript pencil drawing of the Octagon Room, a part of the house and some of the garden.

Untitled, Stephen Wiltshire, 2003, Richmond Borough Art Collection

Mostly, people pass it by. I try to stop them and tell part of the story of this remarkable man. The man who drew our house.

Stephen Wiltshire is his name and he has a compelling history.

He was born in London in 1974 of West Indian parents. As a child he was mute and was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. This syndrome was exacerbated by the trauma of losing his father in a motorcycle accident at the same time. At 5, Stephen was sent to a specialist autistic school in West London. Although he had no speech, his teachers noticed that he had an extraordinary talent for art, particularly animals, London buses and buildings.

Stephen continued to decline to speak. His teachers came up with an idea. They were going to be cruel to be kind.  All his drawing materials, pens, pencils, even paper were taken away and he was told that until he asked for them back, he would be deprived of them. Personally, I’m not sure whether that would be more traumatic for Stephen or for his teachers. Nevertheless, two years later, he uttered his first word. “Paper.” He was finally speaking.

Later in life, Stephen says that his greatest inspiration was his teacher, Chris Marris.

“I used to draw animals, and at the age of seven suddenly found London landmarks very interesting. My teacher, Chris Marris took me out on trips to discover them. By 14 I was commissioned to draw the developing Canary Wharf. Chris was a very nice man. He taught me a lot,” said Stephen in an interview with The Independent in 2009.

In 1982, when he was just 8, ex Prime-Minister Ted Heath commissioned him to create a drawing of Salisbury Cathedral. The PM’s home was just a stone’s throw away.

In 1987, Sir Hugh Casson, who earlier in his career had been president of the Royal Academy of Arts and himself an artist and architect, saw Stephen appear on a QED programme called The Foolish Wise Ones.

In the programme, they take Stephen’s school class to see a building none of them have seen before. It’s the wonderful Victorian Gothic building of St Pancras.

Stephen observes the building for fifteen minutes and then is taken back to school. There he is given a pencil and some paper. While his peers produce the sort of drawing you would expect from ten-year-olds, Stephen faithfully reproduces the amazingly complicated façade from memory. He even remembers the Post Office Tower in the background and an indiscriminate crane.

Sir Hugh describes Stephen as “a wonderful natural craftsman, really spectacularly good. He has a faultless sense of perspective. I’ve never seen such an extraordinary natural talent. It’s a great blessing for him with his disability. I hope he knows he has it.” Praise indeed.

He is particularly impressed with his sense of perspective and shows us a drawing Stephen had recently completed. One of the Albert Hall and uses it as an example of this skill. Here it is.

Royal Albert Hall, Stephen Wiltshire, 1983

The programme concludes that this intellectually disabled boy is perhaps the best child artist in Britain.

Later in life, Stephen reproduces the façade of St Paul’s Cathedral. No mean feat but remarkable as nine years had elapsed since he had seen the building.

In 2003, Stephen’s work was exhibited in Orleans House with the star work being his 360-degree panorama of Tokyo. The exhibition was called, ‘Not a camera: The Unique Vision of Stephen Wiltshire.’

Stephen has gone on to great things, travelling the world, creating wonderful pieces of work which fetch thousands of pounds today. In 2006, he received an MBE for services to art.

He was asked recently if there was one thing he could change about himself, what would it be? His reply? “Nothing really. I love strolling the streets, making up new ideas, buying my magazines, and drawing.”

Then he was asked to summarise his life in seven words. “Keep doing what I do best, drawing.”

Hugh Casson recognised his talent at a very early age.

To me he’s not just the man who drew our house. He’s an extraordinary, exceptional and humble individual.

So next time you’re in the study room, pause by the window and contemplate the little drawing. This is a story of a phenomenal genius and his rise from autistic mute to internationally acclaimed talent. It’s a story worth telling.

David Beaumont is a regular volunteer at Orleans House and can be found most Wednesday afternoons in the Study Room. He studied to be a London Blue Badge Guide in 2012/13 and as a result now appreciates so many London landmarks and their histories.

Having lived locally for over 20 years, he had only visited the house once in that period.

“It’s such a special place,” says David, “so many locals I know have never been and are so surprised when I regale them with the stories of James Johnston, the King of France and Queen Caroline. Most people have no idea about the great history of the place and the interesting stories that come with it.”

David’s favourite aspect of guiding is telling people stories. People remember the stories and remember them. They take them away and repeat them which is a fantastic advert for the house.

Stephen Wiltshire’s story is one worth taking away.

Watch this space though. There will be more…

As David mentions, you can view this drawing in person in our Study Gallery, or browse the entirety of the Richmond Borough Art Collection on our website here.

You can read all of our volunteers’ articles on works from the collection on our News page. 

Become part of our volunteer team and the next article featured could be yours! For this, and other opportunities, visit our Volunteering page.