Who Was Sarah Biffin? The woman behind the record-breaking self-portrait (By Emma Rutherford)
Who was Sarah Biffin?
Sarah Biffin (or Biffen) (1784-1850), also known by her married name Mrs. Wright was an artist working in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She mainly painted miniatures and watercolours.
Why was she such a remarkable woman?
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 best miniaturists of the time. She had an incredible story which highlights 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. Born into a poor family, to prevent herself becoming a burden she taught herself to sew and write, using her mouth, before the age of ten. Sometime in her early teens she left her West Country home to travel with a circus, billed as ‘The Limbless Wonder’. Her talent was astounding to all who saw her paint and she was taken under the wing of the Earl of Morton, who supervised some additional artistic training and introduced her to patrons for portrait miniatures, including members of the royal family.
Where was the self-portrait acquired?
This particular self-portrait, known from engravings, is probably her best-known work, painted at the height of her fame in the early 1820s. It was sold at Sotheby’s in 1986 and again at Sotheby’s London last Thursday (5 December) as part of the collection of the late Dr. Erika Pohl-Ströher Collection. When sold at Sotheby's in the 1980s the portrait came with an auction estimate of £800 - 1200.
Why did it make so much?
The miniature made £137,500 (including premium), which is a remarkable sum for a relatively unknown miniaturist working in the currently-unfashionable early-nineteenth century. The original Sotheby’s estimate was £1200-1800 (2019) and the miniature had damage in the form of a crack in the ivory in the corner of the painting. The price took everyone by surprise, but I think the portrait represents much of what we admire today – a person with disabilities far more talented than many of her contemporaries, who, on the whole, would have been men. She represents such strength in overcoming not only the prejudice that would undoubtedly have been shown towards a professional female artist but also towards someone who would have been viewed as a circus freak. The odds were stacked against her at birth, but here we are presented with the image she made of herself, the image she wanted to present to the world. 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.
What do you think this says about the future market for miniatures?
Miniatures have always provided fascinating insights into the more intimate and private stories of the past. Whilst oil paintings demand to be admired by a large audience, miniatures are viewed in the hand – it is a solitary and contemplative experience. When a miniature such as this - which not only showcases the talent required to paint in such detail on a small scale but also says so much about the personality behind the artist - makes such a large sum it forces people to notice this slightly ‘quieter’ art form. Miniatures are often viewed as a sidestory to oil portraiture, but they were essential works of art in a time before photography and a work such as this coming onto the market should help people notice them and take them seriously as important portraits with a separate history and purpose to oil paintings.
What do you think this says about the future market for images of inspiring people from humble beginnings?
Portrait miniatures were painted for both personal and political reasons. Whilst there are many portrait miniatures of Kings and Queens which were given as tokens of loyalty, it is the portraits of ordinary people, each with their own remarkable story, which are perhaps now the most fascinating and inspiring. Many people who have now seen this self-portrait have commented firstly on the quality of the painting or her wonderful hat – they have not immediately seen the sewn up sleeves on her dress – and I feel Sarah herself would have liked that; it is her talent that is seen first, followed by the amazement of what she had to conquer. I read her expression as quietly (but quite rightly) triumphal.
Commentary by Emma Rutherford Portrait Miniatures Specialist