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

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

She was born without the need of arms and legs to a farming family in

She was born without the need of arms and legs to a farming family in 1784 and, measuring just 37 inches in top as an adult, was put on demonstrate in touring fairground attractions. Billed as The Limbless Marvel, 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, obtaining recognition for her exceptional talent as a painter in an age when the artistry of females and disabled men and women was typically overlooked.

Now a key exhibition will rejoice her as an inspiring girl who not only challenged attitudes to incapacity but who also painted miniatures and watercolours of these types of beautiful natural beauty that she counted Queen Victoria amid her patrons.

The exhibition, which will include things like financial loans from community establishments, is staying held from November at the London gallery of Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC A single series Pretend or Fortune?.

He said: “As a operating-course, disabled female artist, her artworks – several proudly signed ‘without hands’ – are a testomony to her expertise and lifelong dedication. But inspite of her prolific artistic output and visual appeal in numerous published memoirs, letters and literary is effective by top figures of her age, Biffin’s extraordinary lifestyle has been mostly neglected by art historians until finally now.”

‘The lady without legs or arms’: how an artist shattered Victorian ideas about disability | Painting
Marc Quinn’s sculpture of exhibition adviser Alison Lapper, entitled Alison Lapper Pregnant, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Photograph: Dan Regan/Getty Illustrations or photos

Born with the congenital issue phocomelia, Biffin was described on her baptism document as “born without arms and legs”. Rising up in rural Somerset, she taught herself to write, paint, sew and use scissors. This kind of was her extraordinary perseverance that, when her spouse and children attended church, she refused to be carried, insisting on rolling down the aisle to their pew.

Her father labored as a farm labourer, a cobbler and a draper. Biffin was in a position to complement the spouse and children profits with her £5 yearly earnings from her appearances with Emmanuel Dukes’s travelling fairground.

Just one ad proclaimed her “great genius” in drawing and portray with her mouth, adding: “The Reader may well very easily imagine it not possible she really should be capable of doing what is inserted in this Invoice, but if she cannot, and even considerably a lot more, the Conductor will forfeit A single Thousand Guineas.”

Some spectators acquired a specimen of her composing incorporated in the expense of some tickets. Other folks paid three guineas for her miniature portraits.

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

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

Her fortunes improved following the Earl of Morton sat for his portrait at St Bartholomew’s Honest in London and was so amazed by her expertise that he compensated for her formal training with a noted painter, William Marshall Craig. From 1816, she established herself up as an independent artist and took commissions from nobility and royalty.

This sort of was her fame that Charles Dickens referred to her in quite a few novels, like The Aged Curiosity Shop, in which he wrote of “the very little girl without legs or arms”.

But, as if she experienced not endured adequate, her coronary heart was damaged by a scoundrel, William Stephen Wright, who married her – only to disappear with her funds, leaving her with a tiny yearly allowance. She died in 1850, aged 66.

A revival of curiosity in Biffin in latest many years is mirrored by an increase in the price ranges her artworks fetch. In 2019, a single of her self-portrait miniatures bought for £137,500, a exceptional sum for a minor-recognized artist.

The exhibition Without the need of Fingers: The Art of Sarah Biffin will be staged in Pall Mall by Philip Mould & Firm, which has specialised in British artwork for a lot more than 35 a long time. It will function Biffin’s commissioned portraits and self-portraits, such as a person acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2020, which will be amongst its Inspiring People display in 2023.

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

Other exhibits include things like even now lifes, this kind of as her Research of Feathers, executed with supreme delicacy and realism, and handwritten letters that reveal humour somewhat than bitterness.

Mould described her expertise as outstanding and deserving of a location in artwork background textbooks.

As Biffin was prolific, he thinks that much more of her is effective have but to be discovered. They may possibly have been wrongly attributed as she signed some beneath her husband’s name.

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