‘The lady without legs or arms’: how an artist shattered Victorian ideas about disability | Painting


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

But she overcame life’s adversities, finding recognition for her excellent expertise as a painter in an age when the artistry of women of all ages and disabled persons was frequently ignored.

Now a major exhibition will celebrate her as an inspiring girl who not only challenged attitudes to incapacity but who also painted miniatures and watercolours of such beautiful splendor that she counted Queen Victoria amid her patrons.

The exhibition, which will contain loans from public institutions, is currently being held from November at the London gallery of Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC A person collection Fake or Fortune?.

He mentioned: “As a performing-class, disabled woman artist, her artworks – several proudly signed ‘without hands’ – are a testament to her talent and lifelong determination. But inspite of her prolific inventive output and physical appearance in quite a few published memoirs, letters and literary operates by top figures of her age, Biffin’s extraordinary everyday living has been mostly forgotten by artwork historians right up 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 Expecting, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Photograph: Dan Regan/Getty Images

Born with the congenital affliction phocomelia, Biffin was explained on her baptism document as “born with out arms and legs”. Developing up in rural Somerset, she taught herself to write, paint, sew and use scissors. These types of was her incredible dedication that, when her spouse and children 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 in a position to supplement the family members profits with her £5 once-a-year earnings from her appearances with Emmanuel Dukes’s travelling fairground.

One particular advertisement proclaimed her “great genius” in drawing and painting with her mouth, incorporating: “The Reader may possibly conveniently assume it not possible she should really be able of doing what is inserted in this Invoice, but if she can not, and even substantially extra, the Conductor will forfeit A single Thousand Guineas.”

Some spectators gained a specimen
of her crafting integrated in the price of some tickets. Others compensated a few guineas for her miniature portraits.

1 newspaper described: “So beautiful is that lady’s contact that she can with relieve tie a knot on a one hair with her tongue.”

Extremely detailed painting of feathers
Sarah Biffin’s Study of Feathers, a watercolour relationship from 1812. Illustration: Philip Mould & Corporation

Her fortunes transformed following the Earl of Morton sat for his portrait at St Bartholomew’s Good in London and was so impressed by her expertise that he paid for her formal training with a pointed out painter, William Marshall Craig. From 1816, she established herself up as an unbiased artist and took commissions from nobility and royalty.

This kind of was her fame that Charles Dickens referred to her in quite a few novels, like The Old Curiosity Store, in which he wrote of “the little woman with no legs or arms”.

But, as if she experienced not experienced more than enough, her coronary heart was damaged by a scoundrel, William Stephen Wright, who married her – only to disappear with her income, leaving her with a modest once-a-year allowance. She died in 1850, aged 66.

A revival of curiosity in Biffin in modern several years is mirrored by an maximize in the selling prices her artworks fetch. In 2019, one of her self-portrait miniatures marketed for £137,500, a exceptional sum for a minor-acknowledged artist.

The exhibition Without Palms: The Art of Sarah Biffin will be staged in Pall Mall by Philip Mould & Enterprise, which has specialised in British artwork for much more than 35 years. It will attribute Biffin’s commissioned portraits and self-portraits, such as a single obtained by the Countrywide Portrait Gallery in 2020, which will be among its Inspiring Persons clearly show in 2023.

In most of her self-portraits, she depicted a paintbrush sewn into the sleeve of her gown that she would manipulate working with the two her shoulder and her mouth.

Other reveals contain continue to lifes, these types of as her Review of Feathers, executed with supreme delicacy and realism, and handwritten letters that expose humour somewhat than bitterness.

Mould explained her expertise as outstanding and deserving of a place in artwork history guides.

As Biffin was prolific, he believes that far more of her is effective have still to be learned. They may possibly have been wrongly attributed as she signed some underneath her husband’s name.

The exhibition’s adviser is Alison Lapper, who was born 180 years afterwards with the exact situation as Sarah Biffin, and who impressed Marc Quinn’s sculptural portrait on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. She mentioned: “I am entirely fascinated with Sarah Biffin and our similarities.”

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