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a signed painting of colourful feathers by sarah biffin
Upcoming Exhibition | Winter 2022



Sarah Biffin (1784 - 1850)

Upcoming Exhibition | Winter 2022


The remarkable story of Sarah Biffin (Beffin) has been largely overlooked by historians. Both her gender and her humble background (she came from a farming family in Somerset), might have precluded her from a professional career as an artist, but more remarkably she was born in 1784 with the condition 'phocomelia', described on her baptism record as 'born without arms and legs'. Her very survival as a disabled child in the late 18th Century is extraordinary in itself.


As a teenager, Biffin was contracted to Emmanuel Dukes who ran a travelling sideshow, where she was described as the 'Eighth Wonder'. Using her mouth and shoulder, Biffin could sew, write and paint watercolours and portrait miniatures to the astonishment of the 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. 


The exhibition at the Philip Mould Gallery will be the first of its kind in almost a century to show Biffin's artistic achievements. Following the story of her life, the exhibition will include posters from Duke's travelling show, samples of writing and small watercolours bought by the curious public, letters written by Biffin (including one to her mother), highly skilled still-lifes and a series of self-portraits. 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.

Alison Lapper | Exhibition advisor

Our advisor, artist Alison Lapper MBE (born 180 years later with the same condition as Sarah Biffin), has noted a number of comparisons between her experience as a disabled female artist, and that of Sarah Biffin's; 'I am completely fascinated with Sarah Biffin and our similarities.'

Alison Lapper MBE is an artist, television presenter, speaker and Gig-Arts Charity patron. She is a well-known public figure and regularly gives talks about her life. Born with no arms and shortened legs, Alison was institutionalised at six weeks old and spent her next seventeen years at Chailey Heritage in Sussex. At the age of 19, she obtained a driving licence and her own flat, and began to live her daily life independently.  In 2005 the artist Marc Quinn erected the statue Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square. He wanted the statue on the Fourth Plinth to celebrate "someone who has conquered their own circumstances, rather than someone who has conquered the outside world". In 2012, an inflatable replica of the statue was a centrepiece in the London 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony.

Essaka Joshua | Exhibition consultant and contributor

Essaka Joshua currently specializes in Disability Studies and is engaged in a book project on disability in British Romantic theatre.

Joshua has published three monographs and numerous articles and chapters on Romantic and Victorian literature. Her recent publications include; Physical Disability in British Romantic Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020; The Romantics and the May Day Tradition. The Nineteenth Century Series, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007; and her recent articles include; "Disability and Deformity: Function Impairment and Aesthetics in the Long Eighteenth Century." in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, ed. Clare Barker and Stuart Murray, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2018. pp.47-61; "Introduction to Dis/Enabling Narratives." Journal of Narrative Theory. Special Issue: Dis/Enabling Narratives 47.3 (2017) 305-316; "Picturesque Aesthetics: Theorising Deformity in the Romantic Era." in Disabling Romanticism: Body, Mind, and Text, ed. Michael Bradshaw. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 29-48.

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    500 Years of British Art