Growing up in Somerset, she taught herself to write, paint, sew and use scissors – holding the pen, brush or needle between her teeth. Around the age of 13 a travelling showman persuaded her parents to allow her to tour the country.
He exhibited her as a ‘freak’ and paid her a salary of £5 a year to paint miniatures in front of an audience at fairs. It was not until 16 years later that Biffin was released from her contract and with the support of Earl of Morton received lessons from Royal Academician William Craig (d.1827). Demand for her portraits and miniatures grew and she was commissioned by high society and royalty and exhibited her work at the Royal Academy. At the peak of Biffin’s popularity her London studio became so well-known she is mentioned in three Charles Dickens novels.
Her remarkable story was retold at Sotheby’s on December 5 with the sale of a Biffin self-portrait as part of the third tranche of the Pohl-Ströher collection of portrait miniatures. Estimated at £1200-1800, it sold at a hammer price of £110,000 to a collector.
Lawrence Hendra, director at Philip Mould & Company, was among the underbidders: “The story of Biffin’s life and the fact that she was so talented considering her disability is what really attracted the bidders… People have a profound respect for those who are able to overcome adversity, and I can think of few other artists who achieved this to a greater extent than Biffin.”
Only a handful of works by Biffin have come up at auction (the previous high for the artist appears to be the £1600 bid at Bonhams Knightsbridge in 2009 for A Lady, seated in a red upholstered chair) but Hendra believes that may now change. “I have no doubt at all that this sale will cause a major price adjustment… her miniatures will be hotly fought over in the salerooms.”
The 5 x 4in (12.5 x 10.5cm) c.1821 watercolour on ivory is a variant of a self-portrait which was engraved by RW Sievier and published in London in June 1821. Biffin’s work (occasionally spelt Biffen) is sometimes signed Mrs EM Wright, her name from a shortlived marriage in 1824.
After demand for her portrait miniatures fell, she financed her final years with help from supporters and a Civil List pension awarded by Queen Victoria.