The outstanding Victorian artist born without arms and legs who painted for royalty

A self portrait of Sarah Biffin c.1842

In 1811, “The Greatest Wonder in the World” appeared at the noisy Bartholomew’s Fair. Between acrobats, wild animals and large quantities of alcohol on offer, the entertainment included “the famous Miss Beffin” – the artist who could write, sew and draw everything “without hands and arms”.

Sarah Biffin (sometimes also known as Beffin) was born in a Somerset village in 1784 with the genetic condition, phocomelia, which meant she had no arms or legs. She was a celebrity of the Regency and Victorian period, she was the main attraction of a group of traveling fairs and was well known enough to be mentioned in four of Charles Dickens’ works. But she had also learned on her own to read, write and paint everything using only her mouth and, from 1804 onwards, traveled the country exhibiting her art at fairs while performing herself as a “limbless wonder”.

By 1821, his touring time was behind him. That year he took possession of a studio on the Strand, made paintings in the Royal Society’s summer exhibition, and received the prestigious Society of Art silver medal. Biffin was no longer a fair attraction, but was, instead, an institutionally artist. recognized.

This exhibition at the Philip Mold Gallery – the first of Biffin’s paintings in nearly a century – is a comprehensive and moving look at the artist’s life and work. In 1808 she met George Douglas, the Earl of Morton, and his life changed. She arranged for it to be taught by esteemed portrait painter William Marshall Craig, four decades before other women could access teaching in Royal Academy schools. Specializing in miniature portraits, she received commissions from high society and the royal family and even went to Brussels to paint for Willem Frederik, the future king of the Netherlands.

The splendor of this exhibition lies not in the frankly extraordinary story of Biffin’s life, but in the way it focuses on his art and experiences. Curator Emma Rutherford has worked closely with artist Alison Lapper – who has the same genetic condition as Biffin – to ensure his disability is sensitively managed.

An earlier self portrait c.1825

An earlier self portrait c.1825

Biffin’s voice and presence are at the fore in this show: his letters are displayed alongside self-portraits in which he sits, triumphant and fashionably dressed, with his silver medal around his neck and the ring-sewn brush on his shoulder. . Her depictions of herself conceal the sensationalism of the playbills and prints, and her work – from trompe-l’oeil feathers to delicate and carefully crafted miniatures – reveals the extent of her talent and artistry.

Biffin died in 1850 in Liverpool. She had moved there with the hope of traveling to America and continuing her career across the Atlantic. In the end, she was too sick to go, but this exhibit, she hopes her, will help her receive the international acclaim she deserves.

Hands-free: The Art of Sarah Biffin is scheduled at the Philip Mold Gallery until December 21st. Tickets: 02074996818;

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *