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This carefully painted portrait by Biffin was executed in the final five years of her life. The sitter is probably from the Liverpool area, where Biffin had settled in 1841. From Liverpool, she wished to travel to America, following in the footsteps of other mid-Victorian celebrities who had spread their fame across the Atlantic. Instead, ill health and seemingly an increasing mental fragility confined her to working from a new studio in Bold Street.

Biffin was painting this portrait just as portrait photography in the form of daguerreotypes, was becoming known. In the following decade, many photographic studios would appear on Bold Street in the premises previously used as a portrait painting studio. This portrait would indicate that Biffin had seen daguerreotypes, as the sitter’s pose and the architectural background are both suggestive of this. Although the sitter here is unknown, the single pale pink rose she holds suggests that this portrait was for a future husband, as this...

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This carefully painted portrait by Biffin was executed in the final five years of her life. The sitter is probably from the Liverpool area, where Biffin had settled in 1841. From Liverpool, she wished to travel to America, following in the footsteps of other mid-Victorian celebrities who had spread their fame across the Atlantic. Instead, ill health and seemingly an increasing mental fragility confined her to working from a new studio in Bold Street.

Biffin was painting this portrait just as portrait photography in the form of daguerreotypes, was becoming known. In the following decade, many photographic studios would appear on Bold Street in the premises previously used as a portrait painting studio. This portrait would indicate that Biffin had seen daguerreotypes, as the sitter’s pose and the architectural background are both suggestive of this. Although the sitter here is unknown, the single pale pink rose she holds suggests that this portrait was for a future husband, as this would have been symbolic of romantic love (the lack of wedding ring on the sitter’s hand further marking this as a betrothal portrait).

Interestingly, this portrait is not clearly signed on the obverse by Biffin. By the mid-1840s she was well established as a talented portrait miniaturist, with some of the sensationalist interest in her disability replaced by acceptance of her as, first and foremost, an artist.

The year after this portrait was painted, in 1847, Richard Rathbone, Liverpool’s most prominent philanthropist, and committed slavery abolitionist, began an appeal on Biffin’s behalf. The appeal aimed to give her an income of £100 a year. Biffin’s long-standing career and achievements were noted by those who joined the subscription – headed by the Queen Dowager, followed by the Duchesses of Kent and Gloucester, actors, singers and poets also added their names to the list. Biffin herself wrote on why the appeal was so important to her – citing her ‘helpless state’ and the need for ‘companionship and assistance’ – reminding the public of her disability in no uncertain terms. The present portrait can be considered one of Biffin’s final studio commissions, before her last entry to the Royal Academy exhibited in 1850, the year of her death.

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500 Years of British Art