Disabled Victorian artist Sarah Biffin’s first show in 100 years opens in London | Exhibitions
She spent 20 years touring the country as a fairground attraction, billed as the “famous Miss Biffin”, the “greatest wonder of the world”.
But Sarah Biffin, born without arms or hands and raised in a poor farming family, became an accomplished miniaturist, patronized by royalty and nobility, and a 19th-century household name referenced in four Charles Dickens novels.
On Tuesday, the first exhibition of Biffin’s work in 100 years opens at Londoncelebrating her as an artist who broke down the barriers she faced as a disabled woman.
She was “pretty phenomenal,” said Alison Lapper, the contemporary artist born with the same disease, phocomelia, as Biffin and who advised the exhibit.
The show was prompted by the unexpected success at auction in 2019 of a self-portrait by Biffin, whose work had fallen into oblivion. It was expected to fetch up to £1,800 but sold for £137,000.
“She was a brilliant artist, her work is exquisite, she inspired others. And she was a very determined and proud woman,” Lapper said.
Biffin was born in 1784 in the village of East Quantoxhead in Somerset. As a child, she taught herself to thread a needle and sew, using her mouth and shoulder, and later to write.
She would later write: “At the age of eight I was very eager to acquire the use of my needle; but my parents discouraged the idea, thinking it quite impractical. I was not intimidated, however, and whenever my father and mother were away, I continually practiced all the inventions, until at last I could, with my mouth – thread a needle – tie a knot – tie a fancy work – cutting and making my own dresses.
At the age of 20, she was offered a job by “Mr Dukes”, a showman who ran a traveling fair. The next 15 years were spent continuously on the road, writing, painting and sewing with dukes charging “ladies and gentlemen” one shilling and “children and servants” sixpence.
Biffin’s skills and reputation as a miniaturist grew. A fair in Edinburgh was attended by George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton, who asked him to paint his portrait. He took the work with him between sessions to ensure there could be no trickery, and then arranged for her to receive formal training from Royal Academician William Marshall Craig – at one time where women were not allowed to study in Royal Academy schools.
“She overcame cultural and social gender barriers, while having a severe genetic disability,” said Emma Rutherford, the exhibit’s curator. “But, interestingly, her disability has to some extent set her outside of social and cultural norms for women, allowing her to go further than non-disabled women.”
In 1821, Biffin received the Grand Silver Medal from the Society of Arts and exhibited at the Royal Academy. She took on lucrative commissions and traveled Europe, proudly signing many of her hands-free works.
At the age of 40, she married William Wright, a shady character who may have appropriated her savings before abandoning her. Because she signed her works “Mrs Wright” for a number of years, some are now only correctly attributed to Biffin.
Nurturing the ambition to cross the Atlantic, she settled in Liverpool. Her poor health prevented her from realizing her American dream and she died in 1850 at the age of 65.
Lapper, who was the subject of a sculpture by Mark Quinn which was displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square between 2005 and 2007, said Biffin’s achievements were “remarkable”.
“It’s hard enough having a disability in the world I live in. For her, there was so much against her,” she said. Lapper dabbled in miniature painting, but “I couldn’t do the delicate brushstrokes. Biffin’s work is incredibly detailed and exquisite.
Without Hands: the Art of Sarah Biffin is at Philip Mold & Company, Pall Mall, until December 21.