Sarah Biffin (or Biffen), also known by her married name Mrs. Wright, was an artist working in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She was born without arms or legs (a condition known as phocomelia) but taught herself not only to sew and write, but to paint with such a level of competence that her work cannot be distinguished from the professional miniaturists of the time. The present self-portrait shows the artist with her watercolour brush attached to a loop sewn to her sleeve, immersed in a glass of water. Her painting slope is on the table in front of her, showing both a circular and rectangular card, or piece of prepared ivory, ready for painting. The present portrait corresponds most closely with a lithograph by Henri Grevedon[1] , dating the portrait to the mid-1820s, close to the date when Biffin married William Stephen Wright, a banker’s clerk (1824). The couple separated soon after marriage, although Biffin refuted that...

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Sarah Biffin (or Biffen), also known by her married name Mrs. Wright, was an artist working in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She was born without arms or legs (a condition known as phocomelia) but taught herself not only to sew and write, but to paint with such a level of competence that her work cannot be distinguished from the professional miniaturists of the time. The present self-portrait shows the artist with her watercolour brush attached to a loop sewn to her sleeve, immersed in a glass of water. Her painting slope is on the table in front of her, showing both a circular and rectangular card, or piece of prepared ivory, ready for painting. The present portrait corresponds most closely with a lithograph by Henri Grevedon[1], dating the portrait to the mid-1820s, close to the date when Biffin married William Stephen Wright, a banker’s clerk (1824). The couple separated soon after marriage, although Biffin refuted that he left taking her hard-earned money, she noted that he only allowed her a ‘very moderate salary’.

Biffin’s story highlights equally the difficulties and achievements of people with disabilities at a time when there was little medical assistance, in an age of superstition, misunderstanding and fear. To prevent herself becoming a burden to her family she taught herself to sew and write, using her mouth, before the age of ten. Aged thirteen, she left home to travel with the showman Emmanuel Dukes, where she was billed variously as ‘The Limbless Wonder’ or ‘The Eighth Wonder!’. Her talent particularly impressed George Douglas, sixteenth Earl of Morton (1761-1827), who from 1808 organised her formal artistic training and introduced her to patrons for portrait miniatures, including members of the royal family.[2]

[1] NPG D11273

[2] With Morton’s assistance, Biffin received instruction from the miniature painter William Marshall Craig (d.1827). Craig was probably known to Morton as drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales, miniature painter to the duke and duchess of York, and painter in watercolours to Queen Charlotte.

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500 Years of British Art