Spotlight on: Sarah Biffin, a Victorian English Painter

Sarah Biffin, Mrs E.M. Wright, 1784 - 1850. Artist (Self-portrait) - WikiCommons

 Sarah Biffin (sometimes spelt Biffen) was born in 1784 in a small village in Somerset, England into a poor farm labouring family. Sarah was born with a rare condition called Phocomelia, meaning her limbs did not grow. 

 Sarah taught herself how to sew, write and draw using her mouth by the age of 8. She showed a clear talent for sewing and drawing and contributed to her family income through dressmaking and needlework. 

Sarah Biffin. Watercolour by Sarah Biffin.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

As an early teen she met a man named Emmanuel Dukes, who ran a traveling show where he showed the strange and curious to a paying audience. She soon entered a contract with Dukes who exhibited her in his show, charging his audience up to two shillings to see her draw. Dukes taught Sarah how to paint and so she began painting miniaturist portraits for her audience who were amazed by her skills. As Sarah refined her skills, Dukes was able to make a greater profit from her talents whilst still only paying her approximately 5 guineas per year. 

 In 1808 at St Bartholomew's Fair in London, Biffin produced a portrait of George Douglas, Earl of Morton. Morton was extremely impressed by her talents and offered to be her sponsor, allowing her to leave her life in the traveling show to start a career as an artist. She opened up a studio on Bond Street, London and took commissions. The Earl also paid for her to have further lessons with the Royal Academy of Art to develop her talents. 

Sarah Biffin, a limbless artist. Lithograph by G. Engelmann.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

During this time Morton assisted Sarah in gaining a more prestigious clientele, including King George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in addition to many aristocratic families. Biffin certainly gained a great deal of popularity with Charles Dickens mentioning her in several of his books and her being commissioned as the official artist in court for the King of Holland. In 1821 the Society of Arts awarded her a prize for her work.

However, when the Earl of Morton died, her commissions soon began to dry up. Queen Victoria awarded her a civil list pension and she moved to Liverpool where she married a man named William Wright. Unfortunately the marriage only lasted for a year. It is rumoured that Wright left her and took her money.

Biffin attempted to relaunch her career under her married name but this was not much of a success. Sarah went back into retirement and died in 1850 at the age of 66.

 In 2019 Sarah's self portrait was put on sale at Sotheby's and was expected to make £800-£1200 but actually sold for over £100,000.

 Further Reading: 

"Sarah Biffen" Rejected Princesses (07/03/2021)  

Ellen Creathorne Clayton, English Female Artists (Tinsley Brothers 1876) 

"Sarah Biffen - Artist 1784-1850" AM Gould (07/03/2021) 

"Sarah Biffin" National Galleries Scotland (07/03/2021)


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