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Sarah Biffen: Wikis


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Engraving of Sarah Biffen
from a self-portrait

Sarah Biffen (October 1784 – October 2, 1850) was a Victorian English painter born with no arms. She was 94 cm (37 inches) tall.

Sarah Biffen was born October 1784 to a family of farmers in East Quantoxhead, Somerset, with no arms and only vestigial legs. Despite her handicap, Biffen learned to read and later write using her mouth. She could also do needlework and use scissors.

At the age of twelve, Biffen's family apprenticed her to a man named Mr. Dukes, who exhibited her in fairs and sideshows throughout England. According to some accounts, it was Dukes who taught her to paint in order to increase her value as an attraction. In any case, during this period, she held exhibitions, sold her paintings and signatures and took admission fees to let others see her sew, paint and draw. She drew landscapes or painted miniature portraits on ivory, which she sold for three guineas each. Contemporaries praised her skill, and some of her miniatures survive to this day.

A portrait by Sarah Biffen

In the St Bartholomew's Fair of 1808, the Earl of Morton wanted to see if Biffen could really paint unaided. Once he was convinced, he sponsored her to receive lessons from a Royal Academy painter, William Craig. The Society of Artists awarded her a medal in 1821 and the Royal Academy accepted her paintings. The Royal Family commissioned her to paint miniature portraits of them, as a result of which she became very popular. She set up a studio in Bond Street, London. Charles Dickens mentioned her in Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit.

The Earl of Morton died in 1827. Without the support of a noble sponsor, Biffen ran into financial trouble when her manager used most of her money. Queen Victoria awarded her a Civil List pension and she retired to a private life in Liverpool. Some years later she married and 12 years later tried to renew her success with the name Mrs. Wright. The attempt was not successful but her supporters arranged a public subscription to finance her for her final years.

Sarah Biffen died October 2, 1850 at the age of 66. She is buried in St James Cemetery in Liverpool.

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