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‘without hands’ exhibition honors sarah biffin in london, an artist born armless & legless

‘Without Hands’ with Sarah Biffin


Miniaturist Sarah Biffin graces the winter exhibition of Philip Mould & Company in London with ‘Without Hands’ to trace her body of work that defies prejudices against disabled artists. The public art relies on in-depth research that covers Biffin’s life and oeuvre and represents her history as an artist in the 80s. The miniaturist was born into a farming family in Somerset in 1784 and her baptism records state that she was born without arms and legs, a condition called Phocomelia syndrome.

without hands sarah biffin
images courtesy of Philip Mould & Company’s exhibition film, via Youtube | image: Sarah Biffin, Self-portrait, 1842



Biffin weathered her condition and taught herself how to sew, write, and paint from a young age using her mouth and shoulders. Unfortunately, the prejudice of the era followed her trail, naming the artist ‘The Limbless Wonder’ or the ‘Eight Wonder’ which could be synonymous with being a circus freak. In fact, she left her West Country home in her early teens to travel with a circus. She went with a ‘Mr. Dukes’ and joined him touring the country, visiting county fairs and positioning herself in front of the public.

without hands sarah biffin
Sarah Biffin, Self-portrait, 1812



Biffin didn’t fold under the public’s scrutiny, but picked up her brush instead with her mouth and painted watercolors and portrait miniatures. Crowd would huddle around her and once she was done, they would leave with a sample of her writing as an included perk in the cost of their ticket. In one of her public shows, a wealthy spectator Earl of Morton came to see her. He marveled at the talent and took her under his wing, supporting her artistic quest and helping her refine her skills.

without hands sarah biffin
Sarah Biffin, Self-portrait, 1825



Sarah Biffin taught miniature painting


In Sarah Biffin’s mid-twenties, as Philip Mould & Company writes on its news for ‘Without Hands’, she began a formal apprenticeship with a miniature painter William Marshall Craig until 1816 when she set herself up as an independent artist. As she ventured on her own path, she later took commissions from nobility and royalty, including members of the royal family. Biffin rose to fame as an artist and grounded her career as a portrait painter. She traveled across the country, painting for her commissioned artworks, and while doing so, documenting her journey through her detailed self-portraits.

without hands sarah biffin
Frances Cooper, Sarah Biffin at Bury Fair, 1810



She signed many of her paintings with ‘without hands’, a testament to her talent and accomplishments. On top of the intricate mastery of her painting skills, Biffin also taught others, especially women, the art of miniature painting to harness the deft artistry of those who wanted to hone their painting abilities.


Biffin’s self-portraits lay down the proof of her artistic aptitude, self-worth, and dedication to take the center stage in the best way she knew. Visitors to the exhibition have the chance to see Biffin’s artworks from her professional career, including portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. More personal exhibits include private letters – including one to her mother – and almost every self-portrait she ever painted.


left: Sarah Biffin, Self-portait | right: Sarah Biffin, Young girl, standing, wearing a white dress, 1820

Exhibiting the miniaturist’s private life


In the commentary that Emma Rutherford, a portrait miniatures specialist, gave to Philip Mould & Company for the exhibition, the specialist shares that Biffin anchors a story that highlights the difficulties and achievements of people with disabilities at a time when medical assistance in an age of superstition, misunderstanding, and fear was sparse. ‘Born into a poor family, to prevent herself becoming a burden she taught herself to sew and write, using her mouth, before the age of ten,’ Rutherford shares.

Sarah Biffin, H.R.H. Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, 1834
Sarah Biffin, H.R.H. Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, 1834



Visitors can grasp the worth of Sarah Biffin’s artworks which provide them a peer through her intimate and private stories along with the mastery one has to hone to carry out the proficiency the Victorian miniaturist worked out well. The exhibition runs from November 1st to December 21st this year and is open to the public for free viewing from Monday to Friday between 9:30am and 6pm in London.

Sarah Biffin, HRH Queen Victoria, 1843
Sarah Biffin, HRH Queen Victoria, 1843



project info:


name: Without Hands

artist: Sarah Biffin

exhibition gallery: Philip Mould & Company

exhibition location: 18-19 Pall Mall in London, England

exhibition dates: November 1st to December 21st, 2022


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