‘The Lady Without Legs and No Arms’: How One Artist Shattered Victorian Ideas About Disability Painting

smallBorn into a peasant family in 1784, he had no arms and legs and was only 37 inches tall as an adult, and is featured in the attractions of the traveling exhibition. Sarah Biffin, dubbed the “Wonder of Limbs,” paints, writes and sews with her mouth and shoulders, alongside champion fighters, wild animals and other sideshow “curiosity” that attract paying viewers .

But she overcame adversity in her life and was recognized for her outstanding talent as a painter at a time when the artistry of women and people with disabilities was generally overlooked.

Now, a major exhibition will celebrate her as an inspiring woman who not only challenged attitudes towards disability, but also painted what she considers to be stunningly beautiful miniatures and watercolors queen victoria among her patrons.

The exhibition, which will include loans from public institutions, will take place at BBC One series presenter Philip Mould’s London gallery in November Fake or lucky?.

He said: “As a working-class, disabled female artist, her work – many proudly signed ‘without hands’ – is a testament to her talent and lifelong determination. But despite her The work of art is prolific and appears in numerous published memoirs, letters, and literature by major figures of her era, but until now, Biffin’s extraordinary life has been largely ignored by art historians.”

Marc Quinn's exhibition consultant Alison Lapper sculpture, titled Alison Lapper Pregnant, is located on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Marc Quinn’s exhibition consultant Alison Lapper sculpture, titled Alison Lapper Pregnant, is located on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Dan Regan/Getty Images

Biffin was born with a congenital deformity described in her baptismal records as “born without arms and legs”. Growing up in rural Somerset, she taught herself to write, paint, sew and use scissors. It was her extraordinary determination that when her family went to church, she refused to be carried, insisting on rolling across the aisle to their pews.

Her father was a farm worker, shoemaker and cloth dealer. Biffen, who appeared on the Emmanuel Dukes travelling exhibition, earns £5 a year to supplement her family’s income.

One ad called her a “great genius” for drawing with her mouth, adding: “It might be easy for a reader to think she couldn’t do what’s in this bill, but if she can’t, or even more, the conductor will Confiscated a thousand guineas.”

Some viewers received samples of her work, which were included in the cost of some tickets. Others paid three guineas for her miniature portrait.

“The lady’s hand was so exquisite that she could easily tie a knot in a hair with her tongue,” a newspaper report said.

Very detailed feather painting
Sarah Biffin’s Study of Feather, a watercolour dating from 1812. Illustration: Philip Mould Company

Her fortunes changed after the Earl of Morton sat for his portrait at St Bartholomew’s Fair in London, and she was so impressed with her talent that he paid her to join forces with the famous painter William Marshall · Craig (William Marshall Craig) formal training costs. From 1816, she positioned herself as an independent artist, receiving commissions from nobles and royalty.

Such is her reputation, and Charles Dickens has mentioned her in several novels, including old curiosity shopin which he wrote “Little Lady Without Legs or Arms”.

But, as if she hadn’t suffered enough, her heart was broken by a villain, William Stephen Wright, who married her – only to disappear with her money, give her Leaving a small stipend every year. She died in 1850 at the age of 66.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Biffin, which has been reflected in rising prices for her art. In 2019, a miniature of her self-portrait sold for £137,500, a lot for a little-known artist.

Exhibition Without Hands: The Art Sarah Biffin’s work will be presented at Pall Mall by Philip Mold & Company, which has been specializing in British art for over 35 years. It will feature Biffin’s commissioned portraits and self-portraits, one of which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2020, as part of its 2023 Inspiring People exhibition.

In most of her self-portraits, she depicts a paintbrush sewn into the sleeves of her dress, which she manipulates with her shoulders and mouth.

Other exhibits include still life paintings, such as her Feather Study, executed with extreme refinement and realism, and handwritten letters that exude humor rather than bitterness.

Molde described her talent as extraordinary and worthy of a place in the art history books.

Since Biffin was prolific, he believed more of her work was yet to be discovered. When she signed some documents in her husband’s name, they could have been misattributed.

The exhibition’s advisor was Alison Lapper, who shared the same conditions as Sarah Biffin 180 years after her birth and inspired Marc Quinn’s sculpture portrait On the fourth pedestal in Trafalgar Square. “I’m totally fascinated by how similar Sarah Biffin is to us,” she said.

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