Painted without hands in 1844


Thanks to the generous donation of W. Allen Scheuch II, Class of 1976, given in honor of Meg Whitman, Class of 1977, graphic arts is the proud owner of a watercolor portrait by the British artist Sarah Biffin (1784-1850). Born with no arms or hands or legs or feet, Biffin taught herself to perform a variety of everyday tasks using her mouth and shoulders. She developed a talent for drawing and painting; became an expert seamstress; and performed these abilities before a crowd of spectators.

Sarah Biffin (1784-1850), Portrait of Captain James West (1808-1884), 1844. Watercolor on paper. Graphic Arts. 2011- in process. Gift of W. Allen Scheuch II, Class of 1976, given in honor of Meg Whitman, Class of 1977.

Biffin’s family contracted with Emmanuel Dukes, a traveling showman, to make her one of his sideshow attractions. She traveled from town to town, painting or writing for the public’s entertainment. Dukes publicized her as “The Eighth Wonder!” and pocketed all the proceeds from the sale of her watercolors.

Thanks to the patronage from George Douglas, the sixteenth Earl of Morton (1761-1827), Biffin was finally released from her contract and established a studio in the Strand, London, where she painted miniature portraits.

A brief and unfortunate marriage left Biffin destitute. Her later years were spent in poverty, living in Liverpool, surviving thanks to the support from a public appeal led by Richard Rathbone. Biffin continued to paint and in 1844, completed this portrait of James West (1808-1884), captain of the U.S. Mail Steamship “Atlantic,” which sailed between New York and Liverpool.

For more details, see the entry on Biffin in: Stephen Lloyd and Kim Sloan, The Intimate Portrait ([Edinburgh]: National Galleries of Scotland; [London]: The British Museum, 2008. Marquand Library and Graphic Arts ND1314.4 .L56 2008.