Sarah Biffin: the artist without arms who wowed Queen Victoria
Nige Tassell explores the life and career of the disabled English painter whose work is set to be the focus of a major new exhibition later this year
When she came into the world in October 1784, the prospects for Sarah Biffin were far from great. Born into poverty to a Somerset shoemaker and his wife, young Sarah had no arms, hands or legs – a condition later defined as phocomelia. And yet, despite her circumstances, this woman’s extraordinary talents would find her courted and celebrated by royalty and nobility across Europe.
As a child growing up on the edge of the Quantock Hills, Biffin was understandably envious of the physical freedom enjoyed by her siblings, so the young girl forged a plan.
“At the age of eight years,” she later recorded, “I was very desirous of acquiring the use of my needle; but my Parents discouraged the idea, thinking it wholly impracticable. I was not, however, intimidated, and whenever my father and mother were absent, I was continually practising my every invention; till at length I could, with my mouth – thread a needle – tie a knot – do fancy work – cut out and make my own dresses.”
That Biffin recorded these thoughts in a slim volume of autobiography indicates another skill she developed: writing. Indeed, an admirer later praised her “excellent lady’s handwriting as we should call it but executed, as all else, by her mouth alone”.
By the time Biffin was 13, her parents agreed to an offer by Emmanuel Dukes, a promoter of travelling shows across southwest England. The combination of her physical appearance (her height in adulthood was just 37 inches) and her exceptionally dextrous skills would, thought Dukes, make her a tremendous draw as his sideshows moved around the region. Biffin had, effectively, become part of a freak show. “The Reader may easily think it impossible she should be capable of doing what is inserted in this Bill,” explained one of the show’s posters, “but if she cannot... the Conductor will forfeit 1000 Guineas.”
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She spent the next decade and a half in Dukes’ company, but hardly amassing the “comfortable living” that her parents had suggested life on the road might endow. Biffin received no more than five pounds per year. “The result was by no means equal to the expectations raised,” she later wrote, “and 14 years of my life passed away without any substantial benefits to me.”
How Sarah Biffin escaped the freak show
During her time with Dukes, however, Biffin’s urge to challenge herself still further manifested itself in mastering another talent, one that ultimately would be her passport out of the freak show. Through hundreds of hours of painstaking dedication and practice, she proved herself to be a fine artist – again, using just her mouth. With pencil, she drew impressive landscapes. With paintbrush, she painted richly detailed portrait miniatures on ivory.
In 1808, her work came to the attention of the Earl of Morton, who witnessed a performance of hers at one of the shows, quite possibly the Bartholomew Fair, an annual three-day festival held at Smithfield described by William Wordsworth in his poem The Prelude as “Barbarian and infernal – a phantasma / Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound!”
Suitably impressed by Biffin’s delicate artistry amid the din and chaos, Morton commissioned her to paint a portrait of himself. Even so, he still had doubts about the legitimacy of her work. To satisfy these concerns, he insisted on taking the work-in-progress home with him after each sitting. By doing so, he could guarantee that the portrait was the total and exclusive work of Biffin; that no one else had worked on the painting after he had left for the day.
Once satisfied that her talent was genuine and not the mere hyperbole of a fast-talking entrepreneur, Morton became her sponsor, arranging lessons with William Craig, a Royal Academy artist often commissioned by the royal family. The earl also showed her work to George III, who became an instant admirer. Despite these advances in her circumstance, Biffin continued to work the fairgrounds, possibly unsure of the more gilded life opening up to her.
By 1815, however, with her contract honoured, she had parted from Dukes; four years later, she had her own studio in central London. Although reports vary on the actual location – some place it on the Strand, others in Bond Street – the well-heeled nature of both addresses left onlookers in no uncertain terms that Biffin’s star was in the ascendancy and rising fast.
Drawing the crowds
Not only was the capital in thrall to her artistry, but so too were patrons overseas. In 1821, Biffin travelled to Brussels where the Prince of Orange awaited her attentions. As the magazine Bell’s Weekly Messenger would later report, “he sat for his miniature, with which he was much satisfied that his Royal Highness presented Miss B with a sum of money far exceeding her demand”. The prince also appointed her to be the official miniaturist to the king of Holland.
Further acceptance into the highest art circles came that same year – 1821 – when Biffin had her work accepted by the Royal Academy, for which she would exhibit for much of her subsequent career. Her annus mirabilis was complete when the Society of Arts awarded her one of their silver medals for an historical miniature; this was a seriously prestigious accolade from the most respectable of institutions.
Biffin’s cultural impact was strong and growing. Not only did she make cameo appearances in works by novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and poet Thomas Hood, but there are also references to her in several Charles Dickens novels, including Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit.
These references were, almost exclusively, not positive. In Little Dorrit, for example, the financier Mr Merdle is described thus: “[he] came creeping in with not much more appearance of arms in his sleeves than if he had been the twin brother of Miss Biffin”. Each time the artist appeared in Dickens’ books, it was in the context of her disabilities, not her extraordinary talents.
Falling on hard times
Royals and nobles formed an orderly queue to sit for Biffin, as did notable Victorians of the day. These included the mathematician Ada Lovelace, the racehorse owner Evelyn Boscawen, and James West, captain of the transatlantic ship Atlantic.
Biffin also painted a number of self-portraits, albeit not always making her disabilities visible. One such portrait shows her as an at-ease middle-aged woman wearing a turban, from under which brown ringlets emerge. From her clothing – her shoulders are draped in a white, lace-trimmed shawl – Biffin looks every part the financially comfortable woman she would have been by then.
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Or so it would be presumed. In 1824, Biffin had married a bank clerk by the name of William Wright, who insisted on taking charge of his new wife’s income, which by now was not insignificant. He didn’t hang around for long, though. The couple had separated before they reached their first wedding anniversary. Initially giving her a reported annual allowance of 40 pounds, this soon dried up, leaving Biffin struggling financially, a situation compounded when, in 1827, her main sponsor Morton died.
During the late 1820s, she relocated to Brighton, although – despite the split from her husband – was continuing to paint under her married name, as either Sarah Wright or Mrs EM Wright. Her technique appears to have evolved by this point; she was no longer painting solely using her mouth. Edward Boys Ellman, in his book Recollections of a Sussex Parson, wrote of how his sister and cousin had received tuition in miniature painting from Biffin during her Brighton years, in the process detailing her new technique.
“Her paint brush was pinned to a large puff sleeve which covered the short stump of the upper part of the arm. She fixed and removed the paint brush with her teeth, when necessary to wash the brush. When painting, she leant her right shoulder forward, almost touching the table. She declared that she considered that for painting, she had the advantage of those who had arms, for surely it was easier to paint with a short brush than a long stick!”
Ellman also noted that Biffin’s flight from the south coast was a hurried one, that she “suddenly disappeared from Brighton greatly in debt”. After time in Bath and Cheltenham, she landed in Liverpool, but with her commissions dwindling in number, continued to struggle financially; the Liverpool Journal described her situation as “an ineffectual attempt to support herself by her own exertions”. An appeal led by Princess Augusta did at least secure a £12 pension from the Civil List, possibly authorised by Augusta’s niece Queen Victoria, while, in 1840, Victoria also bought one of Biffin’s miniature portraits, that of her father, the Duke of Kent.
Acknowledging her plight, Liverpool philanthropist Richard Rathbone began an appeal for a subscription to purchase an annuity on Biffin’s behalf. Charles Dickens was among those approached, but he turned down the request, citing “the enormous number of similar applications” he was “in continual receipt” of. (It seems that being aware of Biffin’s plight didn’t stop Dickens being less than complimentary about her in his books.)
Despite failing eyesight, Biffin nonetheless continued to paint. Two years before her death, she had the privilege of Victoria herself sitting for her. The delightful portrait, a watercolour on paper, shows the queen 11 years into her reign – and, still to reach her 30th birthday, very much a young woman.
Biffin wasn’t. Two years later, in 1850, she died in her Liverpool lodgings at the age of 66, having lived a life scarcely recognisable from her humble origins. Her modest end belied the heights she’d scaled, the obstacles she’d overcome. Indeed, as her gravestone noted, Sarah Biffin had been a “child of helpless fortune” who was nonetheless a “possessor of Mental Endowments of No Ordinary Kind”.
Sarah Biffin's modern legacy
Art dealer, art historian, writer and broadcaster Philip Mould OBE explains why he has decided to hold an exhibition dedicated to Sarah Biffin’s achievements, which will open at his London gallery later in 2022
Despite her prolific artistic output and appearance in numerous published memoirs, letters and literary works of leading figures of her age, Sarah Biffin’s remarkable life has been largely overlooked. I and my fellow colleagues gradually began to discover her story through portraits we chanced upon in the last three years at auction and elsewhere: with each encounter our curiosity and admiration grew, as did our desire to find out more.
This has now culminated in the decision to hold an exhibition at our gallery on Pall Mall, London, from 1 November – 16 December 2022. It will be the first of its kind in almost a century to show Biffin’s artistic achievements. The artefacts will partly come from private collections and museums on both sides of the Atlantic and include Biffin’s captivating self-portraits, delicate still-lifes, bill posters and samples of her writing (including a letter to her mother). Our archival researches in places associated with her life such as Somerset and Liverpool will also aim to throw more light upon the full breadth of her outstanding accomplishments, as well as challenges.
We are privileged to benefit from the collaboration of the artist Alison Lapper MBE (born 180 years later with the same condition) as our exhibition advisor. Alison is fascinated by similarities she has noted between Biffin and her own experience as a disabled female artist, and her input will add a rich contemporary dimension to this charismatic story of art historical achievement.
Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history