A small study of feathers painted by famed 19th-century miniaturist Sarah Biffin has sold at auction for $12,023 (£9,000), far more than its estimated price of $6,680 (£5,000), according to auction house Sworders.
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 banned both women and people with disabilities. “As a disabled female artist working in the early 1800s, her remarkable story is one of perseverance and resilience,” Essaka Joshua, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame in literature and disability studies, wrote for nonprofit Art UK in July.
The watercolor dates to 1812, just a few years after Biffin moved to London, and bears an ink signature: “Drawn by Miss Biffin, 6th August 1812.” The 4 by 5 and a half inch work on paper was discovered earlier this month in the house collection of Peter Crofts, a late Cambridgeshire antique dealer. In March 1945, at the age of 20, Crofts had both legs amputated below the knee after a flying training accident in Florida, then using a wheelchair. He may have felt a “connection” to Biffin, as Sworders’ chairman Guy Schooling explains art newspaper‘s Anne Shaw.
At age 10, Biffin taught herself to draw, paint, dress and sew using her mouth, teeth and shoulders, Colin Gleadell reports for the Telegraph. She launched her public career at age 13 under contract to a circus led by traveling showman Emmanuel Dukes. Biffin performed all over England, where she would demonstrate her painting skills. The Dukes family marketed her as the “Limbless Miracle” or the “Eighth Miracle,” according to the… Telegraph. In a 19th-century handbill advertising her skills that was 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 amazing things, all of which she does mostly with her mouth.” During the shows, Biffin also sold original miniature watercolors for three guineas apiece — the profit Dukes hoarded, as graphic arts curator and librarian Julie L. Mellby wrote for Princeton University in 2011.
Her skill for miniature painting made such an impression on George Douglas, the Earl of Morton, that he offered Biffin his patronage. With that money, Biffin was able to stop touring and set up a studio in The Strand, London. Studying at the Royal Academy of Arts, she painted 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 towards the end of her life and died in 1850 at the age of 66. Though her story briefly disappeared from the art historical record, novelist Charles Dickens preserved a caricature of Biffin in three of his novels, including a casual reference in chapter 18 of Little Dorrit, where he compared her to the titular character and often discredited her appearance. Among the many literary figures known to Biffin, the wealthy Welsh diarist Hester Thrale helped Piozzi portray Biffin’s talent in a positive light, writes Joshua for Art UK.
Biffin’s other works have received high prizes in recent years. In 2019, a self-portrait — estimated to have sold for $1,603 (£1,200) to $2,405 (£1,800) — sold for $183,726 (£137,500) at Sotheby’s, Laura Chesters reported for antique trade magazine back then. Another watercolor of Biffin’s brightly colored feathers sold for $87,495 (£65,520) at Sotheby’s this summer, surpassing its initially estimated price of $8,012 (£6,000).
Writing about the 2019 Sotheby’s sale for the Philip Mold gallery, art historian Emma Rutherford commented on the power of Biffin’s 1821 self-portrait. The artist imagines herself surrounded by rich, colorful fabrics, dressed in stately black with white lace trim. and ready to work on her ass.
“The odds were stacked against her at birth, but here we get to see the image she made of herself,” Rutherford wrote. “Here she is seen primarily as an artist, surrounded by the tools of her trade, including the brush tucked into her sleeve, ready for her paint.”