She is now the focus of a solo show at Philip Mould Gallery.
The exhibition Without Hands runs in Pall Mall, London, until December 21 exploring her life and work with art and ephemera.
“It’s so now”, Mould tells ATG. “It is the story of an indomitable spirit that could have been crushed.”
Despite being born to a working-class family and with what is thought to have been the condition phocomelia, Biffin found fame and fortune during her lifetime. In her teens and 20s she travelled with Emmanuel Dukes’ sideshow where she was described as the ‘Eighth Wonder’.
In her mid-20s, however, she began formal tuition with miniature painter William Marshall Craig (1765-1827) and set herself up as an independent artist.
“She overcame everything to become a professional miniaturist in a crowded market”, Mould says.
Her extensive output included commissions by the rich, powerful and royal as well as self-portraits and a series of feather studies.
Among the works on show are a watercolour on ivory of Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and one of a British infantry man along with depictions of a little girl, various ladies and gentlemen and a maid.
Most are Mould’s and will be on offer following the show for £20,000-130,000. Among the loans is a self-portrait that Mould sold to the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year.
Having first come across her 15 years ago on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, the dealer has been chasing down Biffin works for several years.
Until three years ago her highest price on the open market appears to have been £1600 for a portrait at Bonhams Knightsbridge in 2009.
However, in December 2019 Mould underbid one of her self-portraits that soared to £110,000 at Sotheby’s.
Since then, more of her works have cropped up, but piecing together the show was still an undertaking. It was difficult partly due to what Mould calls the “fusion of fact and myth” that surrounded Biffin even in her day. Beside that was the practical challenge that she sometimes signed works with her married name, Mrs EM Wright.
This is believed to be the first exhibition on Biffin in England for more than 100 years.
Seeking to create an immersive show, the gallery also includes contemporaneous prints of sideshows, a watercolour of Biffin at a fair, handbills advertising her appearances and letters she wrote either on business or to her parents.
There is plenty to take in with a story like this, but are the pictures themselves as good as the tale behind them? For Mould, yes.
“She was a luminary”, he says. “She added a rich lustre to the world of miniature paintings.”