Sarah Biffin, 1784-1850, was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she learned how to make her mouth her most valuable asset. She was born with phocomelia, which affects the development of limb and bone in utero.
But not everyone affected by phocomelia was as fortunate as Sarah Biffin. Although it may occur naturally, is also a side effect of thalidomide, a drug that was marketed to pregnant women in the late 1950s to alleviate morning sickness, resulting in the birth of thousands of children with this syndrome.
According to The Oxford Companion to the Body, only 50% of the 10,000 cases during the 1960s survived. Because of these statistics, more structured regulations were developed to control the pharmaceutical drug industry, impacting our lives today.
And what an impact Sarah had on society of her time! Her condition was a rarity and so would she prove to be. Having no arms and vestigial legs did not stop this remarkable woman’s success. She used her mouth to paint, write, and sew!
She traveled throughout England as an attraction at fairs when her manager, Emmanuel Dukes, taught her to paint and unlocked a special talent. She began to really flourish, making a name for herself, when she caught the attention of the Earl of Morton at the fair. He sponsored her to receive lessons from William Craig, a Royal Academy of Arts painter.
In addition to drawing landscapes, she painted on ivory. The miniature portraits were set in a gilt-metal frame with an eyelet so the owner could wear as a pendant on a piece of jewelry if they chose. Her artwork was praised by her contemporaries and she was commissioned by the Royal Family to paint their portraits after she was awarded a medal in 1821 from the Society of Arts.
On Bond Street in London, she set up a studio and became so popular that Charles Dickens mentions her in his novels. She retired in Liverpool after she was awarded a Civil List pension by Queen Victoria and financed her final years with the public subscription of her supporters.
Sarah Biffin: The Artist Who Painted with Her Mouth (a great book for kids of all ages)
by Isabell Harkins