For 20 years she has toured the country as a tourist attraction, dubbed “the celebrated Miss Biffin”, “The Greatest Wonder of the World”.
But Sarah Biffin, born without arms and hands and raised in a poor farming family, became a brilliant young woman, supported by royalty and nobility, and a 19th-century household name. in four books by Charles Dickens.
On Tuesday, the first exhibition of Biffin’s work for 100 years opens in London, celebrating her as an artist who broke the barriers she faced as a disabled woman.
It was “a strange thing”, said Alison Lapper, a contemporary artist who was born with the same condition, phocomelia, as Biffin and who advised on the show.
The show was inspired by the unexpected success of an auction in 2019 of a painting by Biffin, whose work was already in obscurity. It was expected to fetch £1,800 but sold for £137,000.
“He was a good musician, his work was outstanding, he encouraged others. And she was a very determined and proud lady,” said Lapper.
Biffin was born in 1784 in the village of East Quantoxhead in Somerset. As a child, she learned to sew with a needle and to sew, using her mouth and shoulder, and later to write.
He later wrote: “When I was eight years old, I really wanted to use my needle; but my parents discouraged the idea, thinking it was useless at all. However, I was not afraid, and whenever my father and mother were away, I continued to practice everything invented, until the time as long as I can, with my mouth – to insert a needle – to tie a knot – to do a good job – to cut and make. my clothes.”
At the age of 20, he was offered a job by “Mr. Dukes”, an exhibitionist who ran a traveling show. The next 15 years were spent continuously on the road, writing, painting and sewing while the Dukes charged “ladies & gentlemen” a shilling, and “children & servants” sixpence.
Biffin’s skill and reputation as a miniaturist grew. Another exhibition in Edinburgh was with George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton, who commissioned him to paint his portrait. He took a job with him between the benches to ensure there would be no fraud, and later arranged for him to receive legal training from Royal Academician William Marshall Craig – at a time when women were banned to study at the Royal Academy.
Emma Rutherford, curator of the exhibition, said: “She overcame cultural and social barriers related to gender, while having a severe genetic disability. But, what is interesting is that her disability placed her outside the social and cultural norms for women, allowing her to progress more than non-disabled women.
In 1821, Biffin was awarded the Great Silver Medal by the Society of Arts, and exhibited at the Royal Academy. He took lucrative commissions and traveled to Europe, proudly signing many of his works “without hands”.
At the age of 40, she married William Wright, a shadowy figure who may have saved her life’s savings before dumping her. Because she signed her works “Mrs Wright” for many years, some are now correctly named Biffin.
Eager to cross the Atlantic, he settled in Liverpool. Illness prevented his American dream from coming true, and he died in 1850 at the age of 65.
Lapper, who was the subject of a sculpture by Mark Quinn that was placed in the fourth quarter of Trafalgar Square between 2005 and 2007, said Biffin’s achievement was “remarkable”.
He said: “It’s hard enough to have a disability in the world I live in.” Lapper tried his hand at a little paint, but “I couldn’t do simple brushstrokes. Biffin’s work is very detailed and interesting. ”
Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin at Philip Mold & Company, Pall Mall, until 21 December.