The remarkable case of Sarah Biffen began with her birth in October of 1784. She was born without arms and only vestigial limbs to a family of farmers in Somerset.Despite this perceived handicap Biffen learned to not only perform simple tasks, but to perform extraordinary feats of dexterous artistry as well.
At the age of twelve, the Biffen family contracted their unwanted daughter to a showman named Mr. Dukes. Dukes exhibited Sarah throughout England and it was during these travels that he taught the young lady how to paint. It was initially done to improve her value as an attraction as the public loved to observe unique people accomplish rather mundane tasks. It was a precedent set long before by other limbless attractions. Crowds would gasp at the sight of limbless marvels brewing tea, shaving or firing pistols with accuracy. While Mr. Duke’s greatest expectation was to have Sarah churn out a sketch or two, her artistic talent far surpassed any expectations.
The paintings of Sarah Biffen progressed steadily in skill, precision and beauty. Soon people flocked to watch her paint, perched upon a pedestal, and they paid large admissions for the privilege. During her early years Biffen was best know for producing landscapes and miniature painted portraits on ivory cameos and medallions. She sold her creations for three guineas each and she could hardly keep up with the demand.
During her appearance at St. Bartholomew’s Fair in 1808, the Earl of Morton paid Miss Biffen a visit. The Earl had heard of the painting ‘Limbless Wonder’ but was not prepared for the talent the girl possessed. In fact, the Earl was so impressed that he sponsored Sarah and made possible private lessons from Royal Academy painter, William Craig. From there, her popularity soared. Her paintings were eventually accepted into the Royal Academy and The Society of Artists awarded her a medal in 1821. The Royal Family commissioned her to paint their portraits in miniature and she did so for Queen Victoria among others. Also with the aid of her benefactor ,the Earl, Sarah set up a studio on Bond Street in London.
Sarah Biffen became so famous that Charles Dickens mentioned her in Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit.
She fell on hard times in 1827 when her friend and benefactor, The Earl of Morton, passed away. However Queen Victoria soon awarded her a Civil List pension and she retired to a private life in Liverpool. She made a brief return some 12 years later, under the married name of Mrs. Wright, but her popularity never again reached its previous fervor.
Sarah Biffen died October 2, 1850 at the age of 66. She is buried in St James Cemetery in Liverpool.
image: Engraving of Sarah Biffen from a self-portrait.