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Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin

Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin


Accompanying a major exhibition at Philip Mould & Company, Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin presents the work of the remarkable 19th-century disabled artist who has been largely overlooked by art historians. This book and exhibition celebrate her art, life and legacy.


Sarah Biffin (1784–1850) came from humble origins yet rose to fame in the 19th century as an exceptionally talented miniaturist. As a working-class, disabled female artist, her artworks – many proudly signed “without hands” – are a testament to her talent and life-long determination. Despite her prolific artistic output, Biffin’s life and work has been largely overlooked by art historians – until now.


Sarah Biffin was born with the condition ‘phocomelia’, described on her baptism record as ‘born without arms and legs’. She spent her childhood in her family home where she learnt to sew and write. Biffin was later contracted to Mr Dukes, who ran a travelling sideshow, where Biffin would write and paint in front of an audience. The crowds who turned up left with a sample of her writing included in the cost of their ticket.


In her mid-twenties she began formal tuition with a miniature painter, William Marshall Craig, and from 1816 she set herself up as an independent artist. Biffin travelled extensively, exhibiting her artwork and taking commissions all over the country, before finally settling in Liverpool. Throughout her long and successful career, she took commissions from nobility and royalty, and recorded her own likeness across the years through exquisitely detailed self-portraits.


Working closely with the project’s advisor – artist Alison Lapper MBE (born with the same condition as Sarah Biffin 180 years later) – and consultant and contributor – Professor Essaka Joshua (specialist in Disability Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana) – this publication and exhibition seek to celebrate Biffin as a disabled artist who challenged contemporary attitudes to disability. It is fully illustrated and includes original research.

  • Edited by Emma Rutherford and Ellie Smith

    Contributions from Essaka Joshua, Alison Lapper and Elle Sushan 

    November 2022 

    Paperback, 250 x 190 mm 

    80 pages, approx. 50 colour illus.

    ISBN: 978-1-913645-36-6



    Philip Mould, London

    1 November 2022 - 21 December 2022

  • About the authors

    Emma Rutherford is a Portrait Miniatures Consultant at Philip Mould & Company, London. Ellie Smith is a Researcher at Philip Mould & Company, London. Professor Essaka Joshua is a specialist in Disability Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Alison Lapper is an artist, television presenter, speaker and Gig-Arts Charity patron, Brighton. Elle Shushan is a specialist, author, lecturer and museum consultant, Philadelphia.

  • In the press

    "This book ... comes at a moment when Biffin’s former celebrity is being retrieved ... The essays in Without Hands, however, go beyond simple reputational resurrection"—The Art Newspaper


    ★★★★★ "exceptional Victorian artist" —The Telegraph

    "Biffin's paintings aren't exquisite for a disabled artist, they're exquisite full stop."—The Times

    "...the first exhibition of Biffin’s work for 100 years opens in London, celebrating her as an artist who broke down the barriers she faced as a disabled woman."—The Guardian


    "long overdue"—The Financial Times

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