She spent 20 years travelling the country as a fairground attraction, billed as the “celebrated Miss Biffin”, the “Greatest Wonder of the World”.
But Sarah Biffin, who was born without arms and hands and raised in a poor farming family, became an accomplished miniaturist, patronised 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 for 100 years opens in London, celebrating her as an artist who broke down the barriers she faced as a disabled woman.
She was “quite phenomenal”, said Alison Lapper, the contemporary artist who was born with the same condition, phocomelia, as Biffin and who advised on the exhibition.
The show was prompted by the unexpected success at auction in 2019 of a self-portrait by Biffin, whose work had faded into obscurity. It had been 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 lady,” said Lapper.
Biffin was born in 1784 in the 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 later wrote: “At the age of eight years, I was very desirous of acquiring the use of my needle; but my parents discouraged the idea, thinking it wholly impractical. I was not, however, intimidated, and whenever my father and mother were absent, I was continually practising every invention, till at length I could, with my mouth – thread a needle – tie a knot – do fancy work – cut out and make my own dresses.”
At the age of 20, she was offered employment by “Mr Dukes”, a showman who ran a travelling fair. The next 15 years were spent continuously on the road, writing, painting and sewing with Dukes charging “ladies & gentleman” a shilling, and “children & servants” sixpence.
Biffin’s skill and reputation as a miniaturist grew. One fair in Edinburgh was attended by George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton, who commissioned her to paint his portrait. He took the work away with him between sittings to ensure there could be no trickery, and later arranged for her to receive formal training from the Royal Academician William Marshall Craig – at a time when women were barred from studying at Royal Academy schools.
“She overcame the cultural and social barriers relating to gender, while also having a severe genetic disability,” said Emma Rutherford, the exhibition’s curator. “But, interestingly, her disability put her to some degree outside the social and cultural norms for women, allowing her to go further than non-disabled women.”
In 1821, Biffin was awarded the Large Silver Medal by the Society of Arts, and exhibited at the Royal Academy. She took lucrative commissions and travelled to Europe, proudly signing many of her works “without hands”.
At the age of 40, she married William Wright, a shady figure who may have appropriated her life savings before abandoning her. Because she signed her works “Mrs Wright” for a number of years, some are only now being correctly attributed to Biffin.
Nursing an ambition to cross the Atlantic, she settled in Liverpool. Ill-health prevented the realisation of her American dream, and she died in 1850 at the age of 65.
Lapper, who was the subject of a sculpture by Mark Quinn that 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 stacked against her,” she said. Lapper tried her hand at 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 Mould & Company, Pall Mall, until 21 December.