Richard Wawro


Born: 14 April, 1952, in Newport-on-Tay

Died: 22 February, 2006, in Edinburgh, aged 53.

THE Edinburgh artist Richard Wawro was well known as one of the few prodigious autistic savants with an artistic gift. Notable owners of his originals are Margaret Thatcher and the late Pope John Paul II.

Richard developed his art well beyond the constrictions of his autism and over his lifetime he created more than 2,500 drawings in his chosen medium of wax crayons. With these he produced exceedingly detailed, dramatic images of intense depth and colour - a feat that is remarkable given that his eyesight was so poor that he was considered technically blind. His drawings have a popular appeal which is not confined to traditional artistic circles and his work is admired and owned by people who would not consider themselves art collectors.

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Richard Wawro was born in Newport-on-Tay in 1952. His father, Tadeusz, was one of many Polish army officers who settled in Scotland after the war, and although trained as a civil engineer, he worked in Tayport as a commercial librarian. His mother Olive (Rae), a primary school teacher, was from a farming community in Galloway. Richard's early years were difficult and painful as a result of his congenital handicaps. Between bouts of disturbed behaviour he would often pause to stare at sources of light, deriving most pleasure from staring directly at the sun. Strongly repetitive actions such as striking the same note on the piano for hours at a time and spinning household objects were typical characteristics of his autism. However, at the time autism had not been defined as a condition and he was diagnosed as "severely mentally handicapped". His parents were determined that he should have some form of education and despite several rejections from schools that thought he was too difficult, their persistence paid off when his mother found a special school in nearby Cupar willing to give him a trial. Encouraged by his inspirational teacher there, Molly Leishman, Richard first learned to draw when he was six. She recalled later the excitement of seeing his first drawing emerge. "What I saw was magic. It was impressionism and I couldn't believe my eyes," she said.

As Richard grew up, it was evident that the more he drew, the more settled he became. He had practically no speech at that time and he used to draw to communicate. He would draw anything within his daily experience; what he had for breakfast, the school bus and the cartoons that he saw on television. Even his earliest work showed the characteristic ability of artistic savants to start drawing immediately in perspective - there was no period of "flat" composition as done by other children. When he graduated from chalk on the blackboard to crayon on paper, his parents had a new problem. Though delighted that Richard's drawings were now permanent, his frenetic output meant that they struggled to provide enough paper to stop him drawing on wallpaper when he ran out. The family moved to Edinburgh in 1960 and visitors to the Wawro household at the time were entertained by perfectly drawn cartoons of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear on the walls throughout the house. The problem was solved by his father - now working as a civil engineer - bringing discarded engineering drawings back to the house so that Richard could draw on the back of them.

His breakthrough came in 1970 when Richard Demarco, the Edinburgh impresario, "discovered" him and exhibited his works in his gallery. National interest followed when his story was told by the BBC on its flagship Nationwide programme. The report was aired a second time as one of the programme's highlights of that year. One of his subsequent exhibitions in London was opened by Mrs Thatcher as minister of education. Years later when visiting Edinburgh, she was to describe him as "her favourite artist". Richard went on to develop his talent and have more than 100 exhibitions throughout Europe and North America. He particularly enjoyed travelling in the United States where he was accepted as an artist in his own right rather than as a handicapped artist.

His early works display a large and unusual variety of subjects including all forms of transport and day-to-day scenes such as roadworks and docks. He always drew natural scenes, often with animals, and latterly he preferred to focus on landscapes, choosing subjects he had memorised from television documentaries, travel guides or direct experience. No matter what he drew, it was always from memory. The interest around autistic savants with a visual gift centres on their ability to reproduce what they see from memory, perfect in every detail. Though Richard had the immense visual memory of a savant, he differed in that he would he would add or move elements in his drawings to improve the composition as he saw fit. There can be very few artists working in crayon who share his technical abilities in colouring and shading - sky and water were his specialities. He was a self-taught master of his medium.

Although Richard had communication difficulties, he had the knack of connecting with almost everyone he met. He could be charming and was very good at persuading care workers to take him to his favourite bookshop to look at illustrated books. As a result of his frequent visits, Richard was well known to the staff of the main Edinburgh bookshops. He had a friendship with one of assistants at Thin's bookshop that lasted over 30 years. Music also played a big part in his life. Sixties pop music was his speciality; on hearing a song he could name it, the singer and the year usually within the first bar of the introduction and often from the opening chords.

As an ideal subject for human-interest television and psychology theses, Richard participated in countless programmes and studies. Far from finding it tedious, he rather enjoyed the attention, declaring himself an "international artist". An award-winning documentary, With Eyes Wide Open was made about him in 1983.

Although he was physically frail he had a resilient character and endured life-threatening illness on several occasions, always remaining cheerful and optimistic. Having survived cancer once, when he was six, it was a cruel blow to receive a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in November last year. The body of work that he created forms a remarkable legacy.

Richard is survived by his brother, Michael, who now runs his website