Auctioneers will auction this week a very rare Victorian painting.
Sarah Biffin was born in Somerset in 1784 with congenital deformity phocomelia, teaching herself to write, paint and hold scissors using only her mouth at the age of 10.
When she was a teenager, she traveled the United States as part of a youth group. Emmanuel Dukes’ travelling show but later in life undertook professional training and received recognition by The Society of Arts and the Royal Academy.
Charles Dickens even included her in Nicholas Nickleby’s Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit.
In recent years, her artwork has become more prominent, with a self-portrait estimated to be worth as little as £800 fetching £130,000 at Sotheby’s in December 2019.
Her painting of the colourful bird feathers is expected to fetch £5,000 when it goes up for auction tomorrow, though a similar piece sold earlier this year for £52,000.
A rare painting by Victorian artist Sarah Biffin, who was born without arms or legs, is to be auctioned this week
Sarah was born to parents, Henry and Sarah, who lived in a labourer’s cottage in East Quantoxhead, near Bridgwater in Somerset, the middle child of five.
According to her baptism certificate, she was born without arms or legs.
She learned how to use her tongue to paint, write and cut with scissors as a child before she started to show these skills publicly.
She began travelling the country with Dukes, when she was billed as ‘the eighth wonder’ or ‘the limbless wonder.’
Her painting of the colourful bird feathers is expected to fetch £5,000 when it goes up for auction tomorrow, though a similar piece sold earlier this year for £52,000
As part of the Dukes family she lived with them and showed her skills in sewing, cutting out clothes and painting portraits.
Biffin, then 20 years old, began accepting commissions in 1804, and thus started her professional career as an artist.
The Dukes took over as her Fine Art Instructor four years later. She was then introduced to William (16th Earl of Morton) at one the fairs.
The Earl commissioned her to paint a miniature portrait of himself and became so impressed by her talents that he sponsored her to study at the Royal Academy of Arts.
This relationship resulted in additional commissions, including George III buys one portrait from hThe Royal Collection now includes Queen Victoria’s daughter.
In 1821, the Society of Arts gave her a gold medal and in 1821, she was accepted by the Royal Academy.
Success both professionally and personally followed, and she opened a studio in the Strand in London and married William Stephen Wright on 6th September 1824.
ArtUK.org says that the bride wore the golden wedding ring attached to a gold chain around her neck.
Edward Boys Ellman described her technique in Recollections of a Sussex Parson, writing she was ‘a heavy looking woman; she wore a turban and was always seated on a sofa.
“Her paintbrush was attached to a puff sleeves that covered the stump at the top of her arm.
She fixed the paintbrush with her teeth and washed it when needed.
A leaflet explaining Sarah’s ability to paint will accompany the painting. (Image:
She leant her right arm forward when she was painting and almost touched the table.
“She stated that painting was something she enjoyed more than those with arms because it was much easier with a small brush to paint than with an extended stick.
Sarah was left without a sponsor noble in the death of Earl Morton, 1827. This led to financial problems.
After Queen Victoria awarded her a Civil List Pension, she then retired from Liverpool.
At the age of 66, she died in Liverpool and was buried at St James’s Cemetery in Liverpool.
Sarah was born with no arms and legs. She learned how to use her mouth to paint, write and cut before she started to show these skills publicly as a profession.
Sarah first travelled the country together with Dukes fair when she was known as “the eighth wonder” or “the unlimbless wonder”. (pictured, Sarah at Dukes fair)
Leaflets advertising Biffin’s talents were often described (pictured) as being the “eighth wonder” of the universe.
Her work only began to gather esteem in recent years, with a miniature self portrait fetching over £130,000 at auction in December 2019.
When it sold at Sotheby’s in the 1980s the portrait came with an auction estimate of £800 – 1200.
It shocked auctioneers when it made £137,500, with Emma Rutherford Portrait Miniatures Specialist telling PhilipMould.com: ‘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 is a symbol of strength and courage in overcoming prejudices that might have been directed towards professional female artists, but also toward someone who was regarded as a circus freak.
Sarah gained renown among her peers after she was introduced to William, 16th Earl of Morton, at one of the fairs
“The odds against her were not in her favor at birth. But here is the image that she created of herself and the image she wanted for the world.”
The new piece set to go to auction this week is a 10cm x 12cm watercolour of feathers, inscribed in pen ‘Drawn by Miss Biffin, 6th August 1812’.
It is to be sold alongside a poster which advertised her as an attraction ‘During The Races’.
The poster has the following:He was described as being born with deficient arms and legs. She is only three-quarters of an inch tall and has twenty-eight year old eyes.
“She is a genius and an admirer for the Fine Arts. But what makes her stand out is the innovative and remarkable means that she invented and practiced to get the pen, pencil, and needle. She is also extremely clever.
Sarah received a Civil List Pension from Queen Victoria, and she later retired in Liverpool.
The Sworders picture is available for purchase from the collection Peter Crofts (a Wisbech and Cambridgeshire antiques dealer). It has a special resonance for him.
The Sworders picture is available for purchase from the collection Peter Crofts (a Wisbech and Cambridgeshire antiques dealer), for whom it has a special resonance.
Crofts, then aged 20 and training to be a pilot in Florida, in 1945, his Corsair F4U engine burst into flames, causing him serious injuries.
He had been in hospital for three years and his legs were both amputated.
Major Bernard Edinburgh was his mentor and he made the transition to being an antiques dealer. He was also elected as a member the British Antique Dealers Association in 1958.
Even with his handicap, he enjoyed sailing, having an 88-year-old, Norfolk-built clinker-built boat.