Sarah Biffin self-portrait

The Sarah Biffin self-portrait, a watercolour and gouache on paper measuring 13 x 10in (33 x 25 cm), that has been acquired by the Museum of Somerset.

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The small watercolour and gouache on paper from 1842 had previously sold for $26,000 (£18,910) at Sotheby’s New York in 2021 as part of the Ricky Jay collection. It was subsequently shown at dealer Philip Mould’s exhibition Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin at his London gallery in 2022.

It was then announced at the end of last year that had been acquired by the Museum of Somerset. The total cost was £93,600 with The Art Fund helping with funding of £41,800.

The museum in Taunton holds the largest public collection of Biffin’s works. The gouache had been display at as part of a Sarah Biffin exhibition at The Holborn Museum in Bath which ran until January 14 but was unveiled at its new permanent home last month.

Sarah Biffin self-portrait

Sarah Biffin was born in Somerset and, despite her disabilities, became highly skilled at painting, drawing and sewing.

Biffin, who had rare condition now known as phocomelia, was born without arms or legs and learnt to paint using her mouth. In the self-portrait she shows herself wearing a fashionable black dress trimmed with lace, and a paisley shawl to which her paintbrush is pinned. She is also depicted wearing what seems to be the silver medal awarded to her by the Society of Arts.

The work is inscribed: Miss Biffin. Painted by herself without hands. 1842.

As well as the Art Fund support, the acquisition was helped by funding from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. Chief Executive of the South West Heritage Trust Tom Mayberry said: “The self-portrait is an outstanding addition to what is already thought to be the largest collection of Sarah Biffin’s works in any public institution. It is arguably her greatest achievement. She neither hides nor emphasises her disability but treats it as only one aspect of the mature, confident and highly-respected artist she had become. This is Sarah Biffin as she wished to be known.”

The sale to the Museum of Somerset was not the first time that Mould has sold a work by Sarah Biff to a public collection. In 2022 he sold another self-portrait to the National Portrait Gallery, an earlier watercolour and graphite on card from c.1825 that depicted the artist sitting with her painting slope.

The auction record for Biffin remains the £110,000 fetched by another self-portrait, an ivory miniature that appeared at Sotheby’s sale of the Pohl-Ströher collection in 2019. On that occasion, Mould was among the underbidders on the lot.