‘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 family in 1784 and, measuring just 37 inches in peak as an grownup, was put on clearly show 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 having to pay spectators.

But she overcame life’s adversities, obtaining recognition for her excellent talent as a painter in an age when the artistry of ladies and disabled people was commonly dismissed.

Now a key exhibition will rejoice her as an inspiring woman who not only challenged attitudes to incapacity but who also painted miniatures and watercolours of these exquisite attractiveness that she counted Queen Victoria amongst her patrons.

The exhibition, which will consist of loans from community institutions, is being held from November at the London gallery of Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC One collection Phony or Fortune?.

He said: “As a functioning-class, disabled female artist, her artworks – a lot of proudly signed ‘without hands’ – are a testament to her expertise and lifelong determination. But regardless of her prolific creative output and look in several posted memoirs, letters and literary operates by major figures of her age, Biffin’s outstanding daily life has been mostly missed by artwork historians until eventually 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 Expecting, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Photograph: Dan Regan/Getty Photographs

Born with the congenital ailment phocomelia, Biffin was described on her baptism record as “born with out arms and legs”. Rising up in rural Somerset, she taught herself to generate, paint, sew and use scissors. This sort of was her amazing 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 able to health supplement the spouse and children income with her £5 annual earnings from her appearances with Emmanuel Dukes’s travelling fairground.

Just one ad proclaimed her “great genius” in drawing and painting with her mouth, including: “The Reader may well simply imagine it not possible she must be able of executing what is inserted in this Monthly bill, but if she are unable to, and even a great deal far more, the Conductor will forfeit A single Thousand Guineas.”

Some spectators gained a specimen of her creating integrated in the price of some tickets. Others paid 3 guineas for her miniature portraits.

A person newspaper claimed: “So exquisite is that lady’s touch that she can with relieve tie a knot on a one hair with her tongue.”

Extremely detailed painting of feathers
Sarah Biffin’s Analyze of Feathers, a watercolour courting from 1812. Illustration: Philip Mould & Company

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

These kinds of was her fame that Charles Dickens referred to her in a number of novels, such as The Aged Curiosity Shop, in which he wrote of “the small girl with out legs or arms”.

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

A revival of curiosity in Biffin in the latest years is mirrored by an boost in the selling prices her artworks fetch. In 2019, a person of her self-portrait miniatures offered for £137,500, a impressive sum for a small-identified artist.

The exhibition Devoid of Arms: The Art of Sarah Biffin will be staged in Pall Shopping mall by Philip Mould & Enterprise, which has specialised in British art for additional than 35 years. It will function Biffin’s commissioned portraits and self-portraits, like one acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2020, which will be amongst its Inspiring Persons demonstrate in 2023.

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

Other displays incorporate still lifes, these kinds of as her Review of Feathers, executed with supreme delicacy and realism, and handwritten letters that expose humour fairly than bitterness.

Mould explained her expertise as impressive and deserving of a put in artwork background books.

As Biffin was prolific, he thinks that much more of her will work have nonetheless to be found. They could have been wrongly attributed as she signed some below her husband’s name.

The exhibition’s adviser is Alison Lapper, who was born 180 several years afterwards with the very same problem as Sarah Biffin, and who influenced Marc Quinn’s sculptural portrait on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Sq.. She mentioned: “I am absolutely fascinated with Sarah Biffin and our similarities.”