Scroll down

Book Review | The Art Newspaper

New book on Sarah Biffin looks at the artist beyond the sideshow | by Tabitha Barber

Read full article here.


This book, accompanying the Philip Mould exhibition (1 November-21 December), comes at a moment when Sarah Biffin’s former celebrity is being retrieved. The vogue for her work coincides with a booming interest in and commercial appetite for topics pertaining to diversity and inclusion. The essays in Without Hands, however, go beyond simple reputational resurrection. Touching on her biography, her art and the historical context in which to view Biffin as a woman of disability, collectively they offer a genuine advance in our knowledge, a corrective to the more sensationalist approaches and a deeper understanding of the challenges she faced.

Ellie Smith uncovered the important fact that, rather than her parents offering her to the fairground showman “Mr Dukes”, it was with Biffin’s own agreement that she was contracted to him, and not until she was 20 years old. A new timeline details the extent of her travels as a public exhibit at county fairs where, for a fee, spectators could challenge their credulity by viewing the “Eighth Wonder” demonstrating her skill.

Emma Rutherford’s examination of Biffin’s art—self-portraits, still-life watercolours (most especially delicate and finely painted feathers), landscape vignettes and portrait miniature commissions—is refreshing in its appraisal of her work in the context of her peers, rather than through the prism of her disability. Biffin’s miniatures compare well with those of other successful artists such as Emma Eleonora Kendrick; her move from ivory to paper follows the general trend; and her need to supplement her income via art tuition was a hybrid career that others would have recognised.

 Essaka Joshua, an historical disability specialist, offers an important view of disability in Biffin’s lifetime: the vocabulary people used (such as “monstrous”), the prevailing attitudes and the culture of the fairground. While in the main, she says, Biffin evades more pejorative language—she is usually referred to politely but also unkindly by, for example, Charles Dickens in several of his novels—she was nevertheless advertised on handbills as a curiosity, a phenomenon and the “limbless wonder”.
Throughout her life, there was an uneasy interplay between Biffin as the exhibit and her audience as curious voyeurs, which persists today, including auction catalogues that sell her works accompanied by 19th-century advertisements for her fairground appearances. What this publication offers, however, is a much more nuanced, sensitive and reflective view. Not least in importance is the introduction by the artist Alison Lapper who, like Biffin, was born with phocomelia and whose body, in the form of Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005), was exhibited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Lapper confesses to being “astonished at the parallels between our lives”. More than anyone, she would understand the nature of the scrutiny that followed Biffin, coupled with the determination to succeed.
1 November 2022

    Receive information about exhibitions, news & events.

    We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.


    No items found

    Your saved list

    This list allows you to enquire about a group of works.
    No items found
    Mailing list signup

    Get exclusive updates from Philip Mould Gallery


    Sign up for updates

    Make an Enquiry

    Receive newsletters

    In order to respond to your enquiry, we will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.

    500 Years of British Art