Sarah Biffen (25th October 1784 to 2nd October 1850)

 

Recently I went on a guided tour of St Jamesís Churchyard at Liverpool Cathedral. Iíd been up to the cathedral before (having seen it on the opening scenes from Brookside) but didnít know you could descend a curling stone path and dropped down many metres into a vast graveyard.

 

Before the tour I called in the Cathedral and had a look at the widest and highest Gothic arches in the world. A service was in progress so I took a photo without a flash but a portly man in a suit asked me to refrain from taking any more with a fluid diplomacy that probably came from daily practise.

 

Sadly the final resting places of two people I wanted to see are unknown. One is Arthur Richardson who was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery (memorial stone near the entrance to the cathedral) and the other is Sarah Biffen a Victorian English painter who was just 94 cm (37 in) tall and with no limbs. Iím afraid nobody seems to know the exact location of her grave but I went for a stroll among the various headstones. This seriously handicapped but gutsy scrap of humanity had her paintings hung at the Royal Academy, was awarded the Society of Art's medal and enjoyed the patronage of four reigning monarchs.

 

She was born of humble parents in East Quantoxhead, Somerset with phocomelia. With no welfare system she would have died quickly but for the kindness of a clergyman who protected her. Some people in the West Country villages had not seen such deformity and feared her.

 

Being an independent-natured girl she used her mouth lastly for eating and as a tool for most other things. She designed, cut and made all her own clothes as a youngster. Aged 12 her family apprenticed her to Emmanuel Dukes who toured England with fairs and sideshows. A binding agreement was secured and for sixteen years she was "The Limbless Wonder" (she always said Emmanuel was kind to her.) Crowds paid to see this severely handicapped woman drawing with her mouth, writing and sewing with her teeth. She could tie a knot on a single hair with her tongue.

 

Perhaps Dukes was her saviour as he taught her to paint to attract more paying punters. She painted landscapes and portrait miniatures which survive to this day. Dukes earned lots of money from her but she never received more than £5 a year from him. She may have faded into obscurity but the Earl of Morton was wandering round one of the fairs and he was impressed by her painting ability despite her lack of limbs. He commissioned her to paint his portrait and was so pleased with it he showed it to King George III. He then sponsored Sarah to receive lessons from a Royal Academy of Arts painter (who was teaching one of the princesses) but she was an accomplished painter already.

 

Finally she leapt from freak show to freedom and instead of touring the country in a freak show she was touring it with exhibitions. She kept a studio in Londonís Bond Street and received commissions from The Royal Family. Her living was made from her mouth: she used her tongue to pick up a long-handled brush, placed the end of it under a loop on her right shoulder and manipulated it with her mouth to push paint around the canvas.

 

Aged 40 she married but it wasnít successful. Her work faded from fashion as her strength faded from her mouth. The incredible muscle control in her mouth and neck had reduced with age. When the Earl of Morton died her life soured further. This kindly man had been a portal to the aristocracy and her patrons soon fell away. Aged 58 she came to Liverpool and occupied various lodgings across the city. Her eyesight and the strength in her shoulders were starting to fail and she could no long produce high quality painting. At 63 she would probably have died from starvation but William IV had granted her a Civil List pension of £1 per month.

 

She died at Duke Street aged 66 and was laid to rest below the cathedral. I didnít stroll round the cemetery looking for her headstone as most had faded with time and weather.

 

 

 

Sarahís grave is buried down here somewhereÖ