A small study of feathers painted by celebrated 19th-century miniaturist Sarah Biffin has sold at auction for $12,023 (£9,000), far surpassing its estimated price of $6,680 (£5,000), according to Sworders auction house.
Born to 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 both women and people with disabilities. “As a disabled woman artist working in the early nineteenth century, her remarkable story is one of perseverance and resilience,” wrote Essaka Joshua, a University of Notre Dame scholar of literature and disability studies, for nonprofit Art UK in July.
The watercolor dates to 1812, just a few years after Biffin moved to London, and bears a signature in ink: “Drawn by Miss Biffin, 6th August 1812.” The 4- by 5-and-a-half-inch work on paper was discovered in the house collection of Peter Crofts, a late antiques dealer from Cambridgeshire, earlier this month. In March 1945, at age 20, Crofts had both legs amputated below the knee after a flight training accident in Florida, using a wheelchair thereafter. He may have felt a “connection,” with Biffin, as Sworders’ chairman Guy Schooling tells Art Newspaper’s Anny Shaw.
At 10 years old, 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 13 years old under contract with a circus led by traveling showman Emmanuel Dukes. Biffin performed across England, where she would demonstrate her painting skills. The Dukes family marketed her as the “limbless wonder” or the “eighth wonder,” per the Telegraph. In a 19th-century handbill advertising her skills that sold as part of the recent watercolor lot, Biffin is described as a miniature painter with “wonderful powers.” The pamphlet adds, “Writes well, Draws Landscapes, Paints Miniatures, and many more astonishing things, all of which she performs principally with her mouth.” At the shows, Biffin also sold original miniature watercolors for three guineas apiece—the profits from which Dukes pocketed, as graphic arts curator and librarian Julie L. Mellby wrote for Princeton University in 2011.
Her skill for miniature painting so impressed George Douglas, the Earl of Morton, that he offered Biffin his patronage. That money allowed Biffin to quit touring and set up a studio in the Strand, London. She studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, painting high-profile commissions for King George III, Prince Albert, George IV and the Duke and Duchess of Kent, completing 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 near the end of her life and died in 1850 at the age of 66. Though her story briefly faded 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 likened her to the titular character and often disparaged her appearance. Among the many literary figures who knew Biffin, the wealthy Welsh diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi helped frame Biffin’s talent in a positive light, writes Joshua for Art UK.
Biffin’s other works have commanded high prices in recent years. In 2019, a self-portrait—estimated to sell for $1,603 (£1,200) to $2,405 (£1,800)—sold for $183,726 (£137,500) at Sotheby’s, reported Laura Chesters for Antiques Trade Gazette at the time. Another watercolor of brightly colored feathers by Biffin sold for $87,495 (£65,520) at Sotheby’s this summer, topping its initial estimated price of $8,012 (£6,000).
Writing about the 2019 Sotheby’s sale for the Philip Mould gallery, art historian Emma Rutherford commented on the power of Biffin’s 1821 self-portrait. The artist depicts herself as surrounded by rich, colorful fabrics, dressed in stately black with white lace trim and poised to work at her easel.
“The odds were stacked against her at birth, but here we are presented with the image she made of herself,” Rutherford wrote. “Here, she is viewed first and foremost as an artist, surrounded by the tools of her trade, including the brush tucked into her sleeve ready for her paint.”