Siren spotting: Sarah Biffin (1784-1850)
As a life long entrepreneur and part time artist, I study a lot of powerful women for inspiration, and ideas to empower myself in this unbalanced, often unfair world. I like to read about a woman in history or a modern day heroine to learn how powerful women did not let their circumstances or the patriarchy dictate who they are. If they can do it so can we! This week I read about Sarah Biffin as she was, like me, both an entrepreneur and an artist born in the 1700s. Unlike, me, however, she was born with no arms or legs.
She was born in 1784 to a poor rural couple with a condition known as phocomelia, no arms or legs. A clergyman stepped in to help her family cope and take care of her. They treated her like a fragile doll. She, however, was bent on learning to do things for herself. She taught herself to sew with her mouth and was helping her mother make clothes by the age of 8. By age 12 she could read and write and wrote letters to friends and relatives. After mastering writing she took up the brush and learned to paint.
She met a traveling businessman, Emmanuel Dukes who owned a roadshow and convinced her to join the show as a curiosity. He gave her food, board and a small salary to sew, write and paint for the crowd. Although he charged high fees to see her work, she didn’t receive much of that money. He kept the advantage over her to keep her employed.
Sarah became a phenomenon known at age 12 as “The Limbless Wonder.” After four years of this work, the Earl of Morton arranged for her to study with William Craig, of the Royal Academy, and drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales.
After studying with him she became a professional miniaturist and set up a studio, doing work for George III, George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. She began to hobnob with society people and was also mentioned in many novels by William M. Thackeray and Charles Dickens, who she became friends with. When her paintings were accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy, she became the official artist of the King of Holland’s Royal Court.
Her fortunes changed when she married the banker William Wright. They separated within a year and he took all her money leaving this woman with no arms and legs less than 40 pounds a year to live on. Now in middle age, she had to go back to being the roadshow spectacle to survive. She ended up working a total of 16 years with Emmanuel Dukes off and on as an underpaid talent.
We can see some of her character in some of her surviving paperwork in which she defends the two men who used/abused her most. She did not want to cast blame on Dukes or Wright in public, so she kept whatever feelings she had about them and their actions to herself. This could show her character as someone who will not burn bridges or complain about anyone who did her wrong, or maybe it shows the social training of women at the time to not speak ill of others. No one will ever know.
A miniature portrait of Edward, Duke of Kent, a watercolor on ivory, painted by Sarah Biffin in 1839 was purchased by the Duke’s daughter, Queen Victoria. It is now part of the Royal Collection. She received a silver medal from the Society of Arts in 1821.You can see her self-portrait today in the National Gallery of Scotland in which she is wearing that silver medal on a chain. The description reads: “This remarkable self-portrait reveals something of Sarah’s dignity and strong character, as well as showing the determination and skill of a woman who rose from being a poor side-show exhibit to a celebrated royal portrait painter.”
As a hobby artist who struggles with my own portraits (with 2 perfectly functioning arms and legs) I’m going to hit the studio now and channel some of Sarah’s powerful and gracious energy.