Dealership Philip Mould & Company has sold a self-portrait of Sarah Biff in (1784-1850) to the National Portrait Gallery ahead of plans for an exhibition on the artist.
The c.1825 watercolour and graphite self-portrait is now in the collection of the NPG and available to view online, but the gallery will not reopen until spring 2023, after renovation.
The portrait had been in a private collection and the Philip Mould gallery was in discussion with the NPG since lockdown 2020 regarding the sale. Although the exact price was not disclosed, comparable works have sold for between £20,000-30,000. It was purchased with support from the Portrait Fund 2020.
The deal precedes a planned exhibition at Mould’s gallery on Pall Mall which will also be partly a selling show.
Biffin is believed to have had the condition phocomelia and was born without hands, arms or feet. She taught herself to write, paint, sew and use scissors – holding the pen, brush or needle between her teeth – and went on to paint for royalty. She grew up in Somerset but was persuaded to join a travelling showman and was exhibited as a ‘freak’, painting miniatures in front of an audience.
Biffin was released from her contract during her 20s and with the support of Earl of Morton received lessons from Royal Academician William Craig (d.1827).
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 (ATG No 2422). Last year a number of her works came to auction, including at Sworders and Sotheby’s – both as part of the Cyril Fry collection and the Ricky Jay collection (ATG No 2523) at the latter.
Philip Mould said: “People are beginning to notice Sarah Biffin and auction prices are ref lecting this. She was an extraordinary woman who painted for George III, IV and Queen Victoria. She is now finally being recognized by the establishment.”
The gallery has been researching and buying Biffin works for the last few years.
As part of the planned exhibition in November the gallery is looking for further information about her life.
Mould added: “We are keenly seeking paintings from private collections to go on loan for the show. Many of her works are at large – many were sold over the last 50 years and some may have the signature Sarah Wright which was her married name. My belief is people own works by Biff in without realising and her full output may have been overlooked.”
Mould’s portrait miniatures consultant Emma Rutherford is curating the exhibition which so far includes 15 pieces, from portraits to bill posters advertising Biffin at circus shows.
Artist Alison Lapper, who was also born without arms and with shortened legs due to phocomelia, is a consultant and contributor for the Biffin show. Lapper was the model for Marc Quinn’s sculpture, Alison Lapper Pregnant, which was displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square from 2005-07.