Biffin watercolour

A watercolour study of seven feathers inscribed 'Drawn by Miss Biffin, 6th August 1812'. It was sold at Sworders in December 2021 together with a handbill.

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The 4 x 4½in (10 x 12cm) watercolour study of feathers inscribed in pen Drawn by Miss Biffin, 6th August 1812 was sold together with a Georgian handbill advertising her as an attraction ‘During The Races’.

Born near Bridgwater in Somerset with the congenital deformity phocomelia, Biffin (1784-1850) taught herself to write, paint and hold scissors using her mouth.

From the age of about 13, she earned £5 a year touring the country as part of Emmanuel Dukes’ travelling show painting portraits and keepsakes using a brush that she pinned to her shoulder.

Broadsides and handbills printed in advance of her arrival in the cities of England, described her as ‘the eighth wonder’ or ‘the limbless wonder’.

Formal education

However, in her 20s Biffin did receive formal artistic instruction. At St Bartholomew’s Fair in 1808 she was introduced to William, 16th Earl of Morton, an encounter that led to professional instruction by William Marshall Craig, aristocratic patronage and ultimately recognition by the Society of Arts and the Royal Academy.

In the 1820s, as the best and most famous armless artist of her day, she operated a studio in the Strand, London.

Biffin’s talent and her story of triumph over adversity is becoming better known once more. Certainly, the market for her work has taken off since a watercolour on ivory self-portrait of the artist at her easel in her studio (a work engraved and issued as a print in 1821) sold for a multi-estimate £110,000 at Sotheby’s in December 2019.

Feather paintings

Her still-lifes of colourful bird feathers, rendered with great realism and extraordinary detail, display another facet of her skills.

A similar work to this one, albeit with twice the number of feathers, sold earlier this year for £52,000 as part of the Cyril Fry (1917-2010) collection, also at Sotheby’s. Two feather works of equivalent size took $15,000 (£11,500) and $17,000 (£13,000) against estimates of just $800- 1000 each at Sotheby’s New York on October 27 as part of the Ricky Jay Collection.

Miss Biffin

'Miss Biffin. Painted by herself without hands. 1842'. A gouache on paper 12 x 9in (30 x 22cm), sold for $26,000 (£20,000) at Sotheby’s New York as part of the Ricky Jay collection.

The Jay archive (highlights of which were reported in last week’s ATG, No 2522) included a total of eight Biffin-related lots, ranging from broadsides and sample handwriting to a $26,000 (£20,000) gouache self-portrait titled Miss Biffin. Painted by herself without hands. 1842.

Broadside

‘The Greatest Wonder in the World…The Celebrated Miss Beffin [sic]. Miniature Painter Who Was Born Wtihout [sic] Hands & Arms’. A large and rare 2ft 6in x 20in (74 x 50cm) broadside from 1811 sold for $14,000 (£10,800) also at the Jay collection auction.

At this late stage of her career, Biffin, although continuing to paint, had retired to Liverpool living on a Civil List pension awarded to her by Queen Victoria.

Handbill

An advertisement of Miss Sarah Biffin c.1811, advertising her as an attraction ‘During The Races’. It sold with a watercolour at Sworders in December 2021.

Sworders’ picture and handbill, estimated together at £3000-5000, came for sale on the second day of the Fine Interiors sale on December 14-15, one of more than 100 lots from the collection of the late Peter Crofts (1924-2001).

For the Wisbech dealer it doubtless had particular resonance.

When, aged 20, Crofts was training as a pilot in Texas in 1945, the engine of his Corsair F4U had burst into f lames, leaving him seriously injured.

Both his legs were amputated and he had spent three and a half years in hospital. Under the guidance of the Stamford dealer Major Bernard Edinburgh, he became an antiques dealer and by 1958 was elected a member of the British Antique Dealers Association.