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

She was born with out arms and legs to a farming family members in 1784 and, measuring just 37 inches in top as an adult, was put on present in touring fairground attractions. Billed as The Limbless Wonder, Sarah Biffin painted, wrote and sewed with her mouth and shoulder, along with prize fighters, wild animals and other sideshow “curiosities” that drew paying out spectators.

But she overcame life’s adversities, discovering recognition for her superb talent as a painter in an age when the artistry of gals and disabled individuals was typically disregarded.

Now a important exhibition will rejoice her as an inspiring woman who not only challenged attitudes to incapacity but who also painted miniatures and watercolours of this kind of beautiful elegance that she counted Queen Victoria between her patrons.

The exhibition, which will consist of loans from community establishments, is remaining held from November at the London gallery of Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC A single collection Phony or Fortune?.

He mentioned: “As a doing work-course, disabled woman artist, her artworks – a lot of proudly signed ‘without hands’ – are a testomony to her expertise and lifelong perseverance. But in spite of her prolific artistic output and appearance in numerous posted memoirs, letters and literary is effective by primary figures of her age, Biffin’s remarkable everyday living has been mainly neglected by art historians right 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 Visuals

Born with the congenital situation phocomelia, Biffin was described on her baptism report as “born with out arms and legs”. Expanding up in rural Somerset, she taught herself to create, paint, sew and use scissors. These types of was her extraordinary perseverance that, when her household 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 ready to dietary supplement the household income with her £5 once-a-year earnings from her appearances with Emmanuel Dukes’s travelling fairground.

Just one advertisement proclaimed her “great genius” in drawing and portray with her mouth, including: “The Reader may possibly easily imagine it unattainable she should be capable of accomplishing what is inserted in this Monthly bill, but if she are not able to, and even much far more, the Conductor will forfeit One particular Thousand Guineas.”

Some spectators obtained a specimen of her crafting incorporated in the cost of some tickets. Other folks paid a few guineas for her miniature portraits.

One newspaper described: “So beautiful is that lady’s touch that she can with simplicity tie a knot on a solitary hair with her tongue.”

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

Her fortunes changed soon after the Earl of Morton sat for his portrait at St Bartholomew’s Reasonable in London and was so impressed by her expertise that he compensated for her official schooling with a pointed out 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 numerous novels, including The Old Curiosity Shop, in which he wrote of “the minor woman with no legs or arms”.

But, as if she had not suffered adequate, her coronary heart was broken by a scoundrel, William Stephen Wright, who married her – only to vanish with her cash, leaving her with a smaller annual allowance. She died in 1850, aged 66.

A revival of curiosity in Biffin in the latest decades is mirrored by an increase in the selling prices her artworks fetch. In 2019, 1 of her self-portrait miniatures offered for £137,500, a outstanding sum for a small-regarded artist.

The exhibition Without Palms: The Artwork of Sarah Biffin will be staged in Pall Mall by Philip Mould & Organization, which has specialised in British art for extra than 35 yrs. It will characteristic Biffin’s commissioned portraits and self-portraits, like a single obtained by the Nationwide Portrait Gallery in 2020, which will be among its Inspiring People today show in 2023.

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

Other exhibits include things like continue to lifes, this sort of as her Study of Feathers, executed with supreme delicacy and realism, and handwritten letters that reveal humour somewhat than bitterness.

Mould explained her expertise as exceptional and deserving of a spot in artwork background publications.

As Biffin was prolific, he believes that much more of her functions have still to be found out. They may have been wrongly attributed as she signed some beneath her husband’s identify.

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

Kenneth Proto

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