Exhibition | ‘Without Hands’: The Art of Sarah Biffin

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 8, 2022

Now on view at Philip Mould in London:

‘Without Hands’: The Art of Sarah Biffin
Philip Mould & Company, London, 1 November — 21 December 2022

Sarah Biffin, A miniature watercolour of subaltern or captain of a British ‘royal’ regiment of line infantry by, ca. 1815–20.

The remarkable story of Sarah Biffin (1784–1850), has been largely overlooked by historians. Those who have attempted to illustrate her life have often perpetuated misconceptions, and Biffin’s artistic reputation has suffered as a result. This exhibition, established upon ground-breaking primary research, is the first of its kind to present Biffin’s artistic achievements and represent her history.

Sarah Biffin (or Beffin) was born into a farming family in Somerset in 1784, where her baptism records state that she was “born without arms and legs.” Teaching herself to write and draw from a young age, Biffin rose to fame as an artist and established a professional career as a portrait painter. Throughout her long and successful career, she travelled extensively, took commissions from royalty, and recorded her own likeness through exquisitely detailed self-portraits. Her artworks—many proudly signed “Without Hands”—are a testament to her talent and accomplishment.

Around the age of twenty, Biffin left home. She contracted herself to a ‘Mr Dukes’ who toured the country with Biffin, visiting county fairs where she was described as the “Eighth Wonder.” Using her mouth and shoulder, Biffin would sew, write, and paint watercolours and portrait miniatures in front of crowds who turned up and left with a sample of her writing included in the cost of their ticket. One such spectator was the wealthy and well-connected Earl of Morton, who supported her in her quest to finesse her artistic skills. In her mid-twenties she began formal tuition with a miniature painter, William Marshall Craig. From 1816 she set herself up as an independent artist and later took commissions from nobility and royalty.

Biffin travelled extensively, exhibiting her artwork and taking commissions all over the country and abroad. She took studios in cities including London, Brighton, Birmingham, Cheltenham, and Liverpool. In each of these cities, she taught the art of miniature painting and was a champion of women students in particular. Continuously recording her own image throughout her lifetime, Biffin’s self-portraits evidence the artistic aptitude, self-respect, and skill of this tenacious artist.

Following the story of her life, the exhibition includes original handbills and broadsides from Biffin’s time in travelling fairs, along with the samples of her writing included in the cost of the entry tickets. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to see examples of the art from her professional career, including portraits, landscapes, and highly-skilled still lifes. More personal exhibits include private letters (including one to her mother) and almost every self-portrait she ever painted. With advisor, artist Alison Lapper MBE (born 180 years later with the same condition); consultant and contributor, Professor Essaka Joshua (specialist in Disability Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana); and loans from national institutions, the exhibition will celebrate Biffin as a disabled artist who challenged attitudes to disability.

The catalogue is published by PHP and distributed by The University of Chicago Press:

Emma Rutherford and Ellie Smith, eds., with contributions by Essaka Joshua, Alison Lapper, and Elle Sushan, ‘Without Hands’: The Art of Sarah Biffin (London: Paul Holberton, 2022), 80 pages, ISBN: 978-1913645366, £18 / $25.

Emma Rutherford is a portrait miniatures consultant at Philip Mould & Company in London. Ellie Smith is a researcher at Philip Mould & Company. Professor Essaka Joshua is a specialist in disability studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Based in Brighton, Alison Lapper is an artist, television presenter, speaker, and Gig-Arts Charity patron. Elle Shushan is a specialist, author, lecturer, and museum consultant in Philadelphia.

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