Book Review | The Art Newspaper
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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.