‘The lady without legs or arms’: how artist Sarah Biffin shattered Victorian ideas about disability

The achievements of Sarah Biffin, once a fairground attraction, are recognised in a new exhibition

She was born without arms and legs to a farming family in 1784 and, measuring just 37 inches in height as an adult, was put on show in touring fairground attractions. Billed as The Limbless Wonder, Sarah Biffin painted, wrote and sewed with her mouth and shoulder, alongside prize fighters, wild animals and other sideshow “curiosities” that drew paying spectators.

But she overcame life’s adversities, finding recognition for her outstanding talent as a painter in an age when the artistry of women and disabled people was generally ignored.

Now a major exhibition will celebrate her as an inspiring woman who not only challenged attitudes to disability but who also painted miniatures and watercolours of such exquisite beauty that she counted Queen Victoria among her patrons.

The exhibition, which will include loans from public institutions, is being held from November at the London gallery of Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC One series Fake or Fortune?.

He said: “As a working-class, disabled female artist, her artworks – many proudly signed ‘without hands’ – are a testament to her talent and lifelong determination. But despite her prolific artistic output and appearance in numerous published memoirs, letters and literary works by leading figures of her age, Biffin’s remarkable life has been largely overlooked by art historians until now.”

Marc Quinn’s sculpture of exhibition adviser Alison Lapper, entitled Alison Lapper Pregnant, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth.
Marc Quinn’s sculpture of exhibition adviser Alison Lapper, entitled Alison Lapper Pregnant, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Photograph: Dan Regan/Getty Images

Born with the congenital condition phocomelia, Biffin was described on her baptism record as “born without arms and legs”. Growing up in rural Somerset, she taught herself to write, paint, sew and use scissors. Such was her extraordinary determination that, when her family attended church, she refused to be carried, insisting on rolling down the aisle to their pew.

Her father worked as a farm labourer, a cobbler and a draper. Biffin was able to supplement the family income with her £5 annual earnings from her appearances with Emmanuel Dukes’s travelling fairground.

One advertisement proclaimed her “great genius” in drawing and painting with her mouth, adding: “The Reader may easily think it impossible she should be capable of doing what is inserted in this Bill, but if she cannot, and even much more, the Conductor will forfeit One Thousand Guineas.”

Some spectators received a specimen of her writing included in the cost of some tickets. Others paid three guineas for her miniature portraits.

One newspaper reported: “So exquisite is that lady’s touch that she can with ease tie a knot on a single hair with her tongue.”

Extremely detailed painting of feathers
Sarah Biffin’s Study of Feathers, 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 was so impressed by her talent that he paid for her formal training with a noted painter, William Marshall Craig. From 1816, she set herself up as an independent artist and took commissions from nobility and royalty.

Such was her fame that Charles Dickens referred to her in several novels, including The Old Curiosity Shop, in which he wrote of “the little lady without legs or arms”.

But, as if she had not suffered enough, her heart was broken by a scoundrel, William Stephen Wright, who married her – only to disappear with her money, leaving her with a small annual allowance. She died in 1850, aged 66.

A revival of interest in Biffin in recent years is reflected by an increase in the prices her artworks fetch. In 2019, one of her self-portrait miniatures sold for £137,500, a remarkable sum for a little-known artist.

The exhibition Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin will be staged in Pall Mall by Philip Mould & Company, which has specialised in British art for more than 35 years. It will feature Biffin’s commissioned portraits and self-portraits, including one acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2020, which will be among its Inspiring People show in 2023.

In most of her self-portraits, she depicted a paintbrush sewn into the sleeve of her dress that she would manipulate using both her shoulder and her mouth.

Other exhibits include still lifes, such as her Study of Feathers, executed with supreme delicacy and realism, and handwritten letters that reveal humour rather than bitterness.

Mould described her talent as remarkable and deserving of a place in art history books.

As Biffin was prolific, he believes that more of her works have yet to be discovered. They may have been wrongly attributed as she signed some under her husband’s name.

The exhibition’s adviser is Alison Lapper, who was born 180 years later with the same condition as Sarah Biffin, and who inspired Marc Quinn’s sculptural portrait on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. She said: “I am completely fascinated with Sarah Biffin and our similarities.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rare Giacometti chandelier bought for £250 in London set to sell for millions
Piece acquired by English painter in antiques shop in 1960s has been confirmed as lost work by Swiss sculptor

Vanessa Thorpe and Lesley Bellew

28, Jan, 2023 @4:00 PM

Article image
Hilma af Klint: Swedish mystic hailed as the true pioneer of abstract art
Almost 80 years after her death, a biography will be published this month, Tate Modern plans a 2023 exhibition, and she is the subject of a film, as she is finally recognised as a visionary artist

Dalya Alberge

16, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
The artist, the mafia and the Italian job: is heist mystery about to be solved?
The theft of a vanload of Leon Kossoff’s work haunted the painter for 50 years. Now historians hope some might be recovered

Dalya Alberge

22, Aug, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Tycoon Dimitris Daskalopoulos gives away huge haul of modern art
Collector tells why he is donating 350 major pieces to international galleries

Helena Smith in Athens

26, Jun, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Amazing Grace: artist’s tribute casts new light on Victorian rescue heroine
Grace Darling’s role in saving the survivors of a shipwreck off Northumberland is to be commemorated on the anniversary of the feat

Vanessa Thorpe

15, Aug, 2021 @6:45 AM

Article image
Airbrushing claim as ‘Eric Gill museum’ shuns legacy of artist and sexual abuser
The master craftsman was once lauded in Ditchling, Sussex. Now, as the grotesque truth of his life is acknowledged, all that has changed

John Sturgis

18, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Ophelia resurfaces: pre-Raphaelite muse is recognised as a skilled artist
Elizabeth Siddal, immortalised in the painting by John Everett Millais, is finally being judged for her art at a new Tate exhibition

Richard Brooks

02, Apr, 2023 @8:00 AM

Article image
Story of doomed war artist Eric Ravilious told in new film
The official combat painter died in 1942 when his plane went down. Now his inspiring life story is the subject of a major documentary

Richard Brooks

19, Jun, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Frank Auerbach: how artist drew himself for Covid ‘plague years’ drawings
The renowned British artist found inspiration in his own features after the pandemic left him without sitters

Dalya Alberge

18, Sep, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘Damien Hirst stole my cherry blossom’: artist faces plagiarism claim number 16
Painter Joe Machine ‘incensed’ by similarity to his own canvases, created a decade before

Dalya Alberge

06, Feb, 2022 @7:30 AM