Today in 2019, the sale of a portrait by 19th Century English miniaturist Sarah Biffin.
It’s not unusual that fine art from years past will come up for sale in our time.
What’s unusual is that Sarah Biffin became a renowned artist in that time given that she was born without full arms or legs.
Biffin was born in 1784 in Somerset, England, the third of five children.
It was not uncommon at that time that people with disabilities were treated as curiosities or worse rather than as individuals.
And so to make a living, for a time she was part of a traveling circus, advertised as “The Limbless Wonder.”
But Sarah Biffin WAS an individual, who had learned how to write, sew, use scissors and paint.
And she had a gift for painting.
She became well known for her watercolors and miniature portraits.
By her mid-twenties, Biffin left the circus behind and began studying at the Royal Academy of Art.
Her instructor, William Marshall Craig, was extremely well connected, so when Biffin became a full-time independent artist, she started to get commissions from some very prominent art lovers, including for members of the royal family.
She often signed her portraits with the phrase “without hands,” which is the name of an exhibition now running at Philip Mould & Company in London.
The way these paintings were made was remarkable, especially in that time.
But the art itself is remarkable too.
Biffin had a knack for making her subjects look alive and lively, especially in a series of self-portraits.
As Philip Mould’s miniatures expert Emma Rutherford said, the self portraits ensure 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.”
Some painters use canvas, others use wood.
Elspeth McLean paints on round stones from the ocean.
The British Columbia-based artist turns round stones into colorful and extremely ornate mini mandalas.
Who Was Sarah Biffin? (Philip Mould and Company)
Lithograph by R. T. Stothard based on one of Sarah Biffin’s self-portraits. Via Wikicommons