Miniature by Sarah Biffin, 19th Century Artist Born Without Arms and Legs, Exceeds Auction Estimates | Smart News


Sarah Biffin, Sarah Biffinwatercolor
Public domain via the Wellcome Collection

A small feather study painted by famous 19th century miniaturist Sarah Biffin has sold at auction for $12,023 (£9,000), far exceeding its estimated price of $6,680 (£5,000), according to the house of Sworders auction.

Born into a poor family in Somerset, England in 1784, with no arms or legs, Biffin forged a successful artistic career in a society that often ostracized women and people with disabilities. “As a disabled woman artist working in the early 19th century, her remarkable story is one of perseverance and resilience,” wrote Essaka Joshua, a specialist in literature and disability studies at the University of Notre-Dame. Dame, for the non-profit Art UK in July.

A gold framed miniature drawing of a pile of feathers with an elegant ink inscription

Sarah Biffin, study of feathers1812, recently sold at auction for £9,000.

Courtesy of Sworders Auctioneers

The watercolor dates from 1812, just a few years after Biffin moved to London, and bears an ink signature: “Drawn by Miss Biffin, August 6, 1812”. The 4-by-5-and-a-half-inch artwork on paper was discovered in the collection of the home of Peter Crofts, a former Cambridgeshire antique dealer, earlier this month. In March 1945, at age 20, Crofts had both legs amputated below the knee after a flight training accident in Florida, subsequently using a wheelchair. He may have felt a ‘connection’ with Biffin, as Sworders president Guy Schooling puts it art diaryit’s Anny Shaw.

At age 10, Biffin taught herself to draw, paint, make dresses and sew using her mouth, teeth and shoulders, reports Colin Gleadell for the Telegraph. She launched her public career at age 13 under contract with a circus run by traveling showman Emmanuel Dukes. Biffin performed across England, where she demonstrated her talents as a painter. The Dukes family marketed her as the “limbless wonder” or the “eighth wonder”, depending on the Telegraph. In a 19th-century flyer advertising her skills sold as part of the recent batch of watercolors, Biffin is described as a miniature painter with “marvelous powers.” The brochure adds: “Writes well, draws landscapes, paints miniatures and many other amazing things, which she does mostly with her mouth. At shows, Biffin also sold original miniature watercolors for three guineas apiece — profits from which Dukes pocketed, as graphic arts curator and librarian Julie L. Mellby wrote for Princeton University in 2011.

His talent for miniature painting so impressed George Douglas, Earl of Morton, that he offered Biffin his patronage. This money enabled Biffin to stop filming and open a studio in the Strand, London. She studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, painting large-scale commissions for King George III, Prince Albert, George IV and the Duke and Duchess of Kent, painting a portrait of Queen Victoria in 1848.

Biffin married William Stephen Wright in 1824, but they would separate within the year. After the death of her godfather, the Earl, in 1827, she struggled financially towards the end of her life and died in 1850 aged 66. Although his story briefly disappeared from the art history archives, the novelist Charles Dickens kept a caricature of Biffin. in three of his novels, including a passing reference to chapter 18 of Little Dorrit, where he compared her to the titular character and often disparaged her appearance. Among the many literary figures who knew Biffin, wealthy Welsh columnist Hester Thrale Piozzi helped cast Biffin’s talent in a positive light, writes Joshua for Art UK.

A flyer announcing Miss Biffin, Miniature Painter

A 19th century flyer advertises a performance by Sarah Biffin

Courtesy of Sworders Auctioneers

Biffin’s other works have fetched high prices in recent years. In 2019, a self-portrait – estimated at $1,603 (£1,200) to $2,405 (£1,800) – sold for $183,726 (£137,500) at Sotheby’s, Laura Chesters reported for Journal of the Antiques Trade at the time. Another brightly colored feather watercolor by Biffin sold for $87,495 (£65,520) at Sotheby’s this summer, beating its original estimated price of $8,012 (£6,000).

Writing about the 2019 Sotheby’s sale for Philip Mold Gallery, art historian Emma Rutherford commented on the power of Biffin’s 1821 self-portrait. The artist depicts herself surrounded by rich, colorful fabrics, wearing a stately black with white lace trim and ready to work on its easel.

“The odds were against her at birth, but here we are presented with the image she made of herself,” Rutherford wrote. “Here, she is seen above all as an artist, surrounded by the tools of her trade, including the brush stored in her sleeve ready for her painting.”


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