Marvellous Miniatures

By Olivia Newby

We take for granted the idea of pictures of our loved ones always being with us but what about when it was impossible not just because smartphones were not created yet but neither was photography? Yet image makes the great skill with limbs playable enough to create intricate marks. But what about if you didn’t have any?? One of the great artists of this period was a woman, Sarah Biffin who was known as the “without hands” artist, find out more about ‘Marvelous Miniatures‘ here.

Sarah BiffinSelf PortraitWatercolour© Philip Mould & Company

When it comes to a replacement for photography we may have forgotten the art of miniatures. Miniature art includes paintings, engravings, and sculptures that are very small with a long history. A big trend in Victorian England, that started for the elite in the 16th century was the painting of miniature portraits after all photography didn’t exist so lovers would carry mini paintings of their loved ones sometimes on pendants.

The appreciation of Biffin’s work was due to her great craft but also her disability, phocomelia. Known as the “without hands” artist. The prolific artist showcased her talents in numerous published memoirs, letters, and literary works.

Sarah Biffin Self PortraitWatercolour© Philip Mould & Company

The prospects of Biffin’s determination were remarkable for the achieving artist at the time she was creating her artworks. In the age of the 19th century was when the artistry of women and disabled people was generally ignored. Two centuries later, a major exhibition held at the Philip Mould & Company will celebrate Biffin as an inspiring artist.

Sarah Biffin was born in Somerset in 1784 with the condition ‘phocomelia’, described on her baptism record as ‘born without arms and legs’. Despite a challenging condition she spent her early years learning to write and sew. 

Sarah Biffin, © Philip Mould & Company

Miniature art has always provided fascinating insights into more intimate and detailed works of art. Whilst larger-scaled oil paintings can express a wider space for detail, miniatures are viewed in the hand. The art requires extreme detail, typically showing all the tiny brushstrokes or pencil marks, but exhibits all the same elements of a larger painting. Miniature work such as biffins showcases the talent to paint in such detail on a small scale amazing considering Biffin taught herself to paint with such a level of talent.

Using her mouth and shoulder to hold her implements, Biffin was determined to not allow her restrictions to allow her talents to get in the way. Soon Biffin became highly skilled in sewing, drawing, lettering, and painting. Hearing about her extraordinary talent a travelling showman called Emmanuel Dukes approached Sarah’s parents and offered to make her part of his travelling show. At the age of 13, Biffin’s work was featured for the next 16 years as part of a fairground attraction. Her talents were also to be noticed by the late Queen Victoria. 

For the works of her self-portraits are some of Biffin’s best-known work, painted at the height of her fame in the early 1820s. Whilst creating her work at the fairgrounds, Biffin would stir big crowds who would have left with a sample of her writing. Despite at the time, when the likes of Biffin’s work were not so appreciated, one spectator, in particular, was the wealthy and well-connected Earl of Morton. After 16 years working at the fairgrounds, the Earl of Morton aided Biffin and fully admired her talents. His quest guided her to become an independent painter, which allowed her work to be appreciated all over the country.

Sarah Biffin, © Philip Mould & Company

Following the extensive support of her work, Biffin rose to fame. Exhibiting her artwork and taking commissions all over the country and abroad, including cities such as London, Brighton, Birmingham, Cheltenham, and Liverpool.

The exhibition at the Philip Mould & Company will showcase her works following through the story of her life. Held in the exhibition will include around 25 pieces that showcase Biffin’s artistic achievements. The artwork on show at the exhibition will include a series of self-portraits, commissioned portraits (portrait miniature of Thomas Lamb and portrait miniature of Anna Eliza Rausch), still-lifes (including the delicate and detailed 1812 Study of Feathers), posters from Dukes’ travelling show declaring her ‘The Greatest Wonder in the World’. Samples of Biffin’s writing, small watercolours bought by the curious public (Forget Me Not, 1847), and several letters written by Biffin and signed “written by Sarah Biffin without hands” will also feature. 

Sarah Biffin, Forget Me Not, 1847Watercolor © Philip Mould & Company

Through self-determination, there are many other artists that also struggle with physical disabilities, letting their creativity speak for itself.

Touching on the music industry, there are many well-known musicians such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Rick Allen. However, no other mainstream-successful singer-songwriter has ever explored disability and attitudes to disabled people as powerfully and memorably as Ian Dury.

Ian Dury was a British lead singer and songwriter for the band ‘Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ who rose to fame during the late 1970s. Born in 1942 Dury age 7 contracted polio. This was at the height of the 1949 epidemic when the virus was rife and there was no vaccine. 

The newly disabled child was to spend eighteen months in hospital, much of Dury was immobilised in plaster, as well as being braced with a calliper. He spent most of his teenage years at Chailey Heritage Craft School in Sussex. Known early on as ‘The Heritage Craft Schools and Hospitals for Crippled Children.

Ian Dury’s song “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” was the artist’s biggest hit to date and deservedly the biggest of his career. Inspired to write the song influenced by his disability.

Ian Dury and The Blockheads – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick

Much like Sarah Biffin, Alison Lapper (MBE) was diagnosed with the same rare condition, Phocomelia. In comparison to Biffin, Lapper uses her mouth and feet to construct her artwork. Starting to paint at the age of three, and it wasn’t long until the age of 16 that she won a competition for her work.

Despite her clear talents, Lapper was still challenged by her style and expression of her work. At university, her tutor suggested that Lapper did not want to face how she looked at herself and who she was. Though shocked at this statement, it spurred Alison to examine who she is further from her physical disabilities, making her aware of something significantly special about herself.

Although both Lapper and Biffin follow as creatives. With the 180-year gap between each other, Lapper feels a strong connection follows the experience both disabled female artists have endured.

Miniature paintings hold so much significance in history. A unique and pre-historic idea of ‘selfies’ before photography existed. A marvelous piece of art that is pocket-sized, in order can be carried around to be loved and appreciated by others. The art of Sarah Biffin entices that idea. Following the start of her career, creating art in front of crowds at the fairgrounds. Whereby people would trade tokens for her work to be adored for her incredible talents. The intricate details of her work are vastly appreciated today. Being sold at auctions as well as the Philip Mould & Company showcasing her talents as a creative over 180 years later.

Sarah Biffin Self-Portrait before her painting slope, c. 1825Watercolour and pencil on card ©National Portrait Gallery

The “Without Hands”: The Art of Sarah Biffin exhibition will be held at the Philip Mould & Company from the 1st of November to the 21st of December 2022. To find out more please visit here. 

If you enjoyed reading The Aperitif Moment Here why not try reading ‘The Aperitif Moment’ here. 

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