A small study of feathers, painted by the famous 19th-century miniaturist Sarah Biffin, fetched $12,023 (£9,000) at auction, far exceeding the estimated price of $6,680 (£5,000), according to auction house Sworders.
Born in 1784 without arms or legs to a poor family in Somerset, England, Biffin forged a successful artistic career in a society that often marginalized both women and the disabled. “As a disabled artist working in the early nineteenth century, her remarkable story is one of perseverance and resilience,” Essaka Joshua, a literature and disability scholar at the University of Notre Dame, wrote for the nonprofit Art UK in July.
Dating to 1812, just a few years after Biffin moved to London, the watercolor bears a signature in ink: “Drawn by Miss Biffin, 6th August 1812.” The 4 x 5.5 inch work on paper was completed early this year Discovered this month in the home collection of Peter Crofts, a Cambridgeshire dealer in Late Antiquities. In March 1945, at the age of 20, after a flight training accident in Florida, Crofts had both legs amputated below the knee, after which he used a wheelchair. He may have felt a “connection” with Biffin, according to Sworders chairman Guy Schooling art newspaper‘s Anne Shaw.
By age 10, Biffin was teaching himself to draw, paint, sew clothes, and sew with his mouth, teeth, and shoulders, reports Colin Gleadell for the telegraph. She began her public career at the age of 13 under contract to a circus run by traveling showman Emmanuel Dukes. Biffin performed throughout England where she demonstrated her painting skills. The Dukes family marketed them as the “limbless miracle” or the “eighth miracle”. Telegraph. A 19th-century pamphlet advertising her skills and sold as part of a recent watercolor lot describes Biffin as a miniaturist with “wonderful powers”. The brochure adds: “Writes well, draws landscapes, paints miniatures and many other amazing things, all of which she does mostly with her mouth.” At the shows, Biffin also sold original miniature watercolors for three guineas apiece – the profits Dukes raked in , as graphic arts curator and librarian Julie L. Mellby wrote for Princeton University in 2011.
Her skills in miniature painting so impressed George Douglas, Earl of Morton that he offered Biffin his patronage. This money allowed Biffin to stop touring and set up a studio in The Strand, London. She studied at the Royal Academy of Arts and painted high profile commissions for King George III, Prince Albert, George IV and the Duke and Duchess of Kent and completed a portrait of Queen Victoria in 1848.
Biffin married William Stephen Wright in 1824 but they would separate within a year. After her sponsor, the Earl, died in 1827, she struggled with finances towards the end of her life and died in 1850 at the age of 66. Although her story briefly disappeared from the art historical record, novelist Charles Dickens preserved a caricature of Biffin in three of his novels – including a passing reference in Chapter 18 of Little Dorrit, where he compared her to the title character and often disparaged her appearance. Among the many literary figures who knew Biffin, wealthy Welsh diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi helped put Biffin’s talent in a positive light, Joshua writes for Art UK.
Biffin’s other works have commanded high prices in recent years. In 2019, a self-portrait set to sell for between $1,603 (£1,200) and $2,405 (£1,800) sold at Sotheby’s for $183,726 (£137,500), Laura Chesters reported for Antiques trade journal back then. Another watercolor featuring colorful feathers by Biffin sold at Sotheby’s this summer for $87,495 (£65,520), beating its original estimate of $8,012 (£6,000).
Writing for the Philip Mold gallery of Sotheby’s 2019 sale, art historian Emma Rutherford commented on the power of Biffin’s 1821 self-portrait. The artist appears surrounded by rich, colorful fabrics, dressed in stately black trimmed with white lace, and ready to work at her easel to work.
“The odds were against her birth, but here we are presented with the picture she formed of herself,” wrote Rutherford. “Here she is seen primarily as an artist, surrounded by the tools of her craft, including the brush tucked up her sleeve ready for her paint.”