Able2Do Anything: Achievements

Exhibition pays tribute to disabled artist

Self portrait of Sarah Biffin

You may not be familiar with Sarah Biffin, unless you are an art enthusiast or pay close attention to the work of Charles Dickens.

Being born in the nineteenth century with no arms and hands did you no favours at a time when there was a severe lack of disabled awareness.

She may have been patronised by the royals but Biffin became a recurring reference point in four Dickens novels, making her a household name at the time.

This week her work goes on public display in London’s Philip Mould & Company, paying tribute to the artist who paved the way for people with disabilities.

Her work found a new lease of fame in 2019 when one of Biffin’s self portraits sold for £137,000 at auction, catching the attention of contemporary artist Alison Lapper.

Lapper could relate to the late artist’s work, she was born with phocomelia, the same condition as Biffin.

“She was a brilliant artist, her work is exquisite, she inspired others. And she was a very determined and proud lady,” Lapper told The Guardian.

Born in 1784 in East Quantoxhead, Somerset, Biffen taught herself to sew and thread a needle by using her mouth and shoulder.

With her craftwork intact she went on to learn to write, giving Biffen the opportunity to tell her story.

“At the age of eight years, I was very desirous of acquiring the use of my needle; but my parents discouraged the idea, thinking it wholly impractical. I was not, however, intimidated, and whenever my father and mother were absent, I was continually practising 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,” she wrote.

Noticing her talents, a showman for a travelling fair, known as “Mr Dukes” offered Biffin a job when she turned 20.

For the next 15 years she travelled the country writing, painting and sewing as Dukes changed spectators a shilling to see this amazing woman at work.

One of those spectators was George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton, who asked Biffin to paint his portrait. With an air of suspension he took the painting away with him when he wasn’t at a sitting to make sure nobody else was helping the artist behind the scenes.

Amazed with the finished piece of work, Douglas arranged for Biffin to have professional training from the Royal Academy schools which, at the time, did not accept women.

In 1821, Biffin’s work went on display at the Royal Academy, the same year she was awarded the Large Silver Medal by the Society of Arts.

At the age of 40 Biffin married William Wright, during the relationship she signed her paintings as “Mrs Wright”, but when the two divorced her work was attached to his name for many years.

Her plan was to cross the Atlantic, but poor health saw Biffin settle down in Liverpool where she spent the rest of her days until she passed away in 1850, aged 65.

The new exhibition, curated by Emma Rutherford, is a reminder of what disabled people can achieve despite any barriers they may face.

“She overcame the cultural and social barriers relating to gender, while also having a severe genetic disability,” said Rutherford.

“But, interestingly, her disability put her to some degree outside the social and cultural norms for women, allowing her to go further than non-disabled women.” 

You may not be familiar with Sarah Biffin, but you have probably passed her. Between 2005 and 2007 she was the subject of Mark Quinn’s sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square - you don’t need to be an art enthusiast or into classic novels to admire her incredible work of art.

Without Hands: the Art of Sarah Biffin is at Philip Mould & Company, Pall Mall, until 21 December 2022.

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