by Victoria Hinshaw
Sarah Biffen (1784-1850) was born without arms or legs, a condition known as phocomelia, and survived infancy only by the intervention of a clergyman who protected her. In her family she was known as a pixie child, and she was even feared by some in her West Country village.
Self portrait by Sarah Biffen, painted in 1830, holding the brush in her teeth.
At age 12, Sarah became a phenomenon at circuses and fairs, displayed painting or sewing with her teeth and was known as "The Limbless Wonder." A few years later, the Earl of Morton arranged for her to study with William Craig, a Royal Academician who was also drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales.
She became a professional miniaturist and did work for George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. She is mentioned in novels by William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and her paintings were accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. She received a silver medal from the Society of Arts in 1821.
Sarah married William S. Wright in 1824, but the marriage was unsuccessful. After she moved to Liverpool, her work gradually went out of fashion and her ability to paint faded as well. Obviously the incredible muscle control in her mouth and neck would have been reduced as she aged. She was supported in her last years by a pension from the Queen and funds donated by her friends and colleagues.
In the words of the National Gallery of Scotland’s description of her self-portrait, “This remarkable self-portrait reveals something of Sarah’s dignity and strong character, as well as showing the determination and skill of a woman who rose from being a side-show exhibit to a celebrated royal portrait painter."
I discovered her work when I attended the exhibition The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, miniatures and pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence at the British Museum in 2009. I fnd her one of the most amazing women I have ever heard of. Almost beyond belief!