Sarah Biffin, probably by Sarah Biffin

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    Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    circa 1825,    NPG 7110,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
A miniature self-portrait probably by Sarah Biffin; a rare work by a celebrated disabled artist from the 1800s.
Sarah Biffin (Beffin)
attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin)
watercolour and graphite, circa 1825
3 7/8 in. (100 mm overall)
NPG 7110
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 5 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sarah Biffin (1784–1850) was a celebrated artist who became particularly well-known for painting miniatures – small, detailed artworks that could be worn on a chain or carried as a reminder of someone special.  

Biffin was born without arms or legs, a condition now known as phocomelia. She went on to become an accomplished, independent and successful artist, who painted many famous people including royals.

She succeeded in a period when women were Marginalised Being prevented from participating fully in society because of a lack of access to rights, resources and opportunities. , and people living with disabilities were subject to superstition, misunderstanding and prejudice.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    circa 1825,    NPG 7110,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sarah Biffin (Beffin), attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin), circa 1825

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • Sarah Biffin is wearing a smart dress and an elaborate hat with a feather. These were the kind of fashionable clothes worn by well-off women in the early 1800s. These clothes would not be practical for painting.
    • We can also see a long necklace with a ring hanging from it – this is a wedding ring from her recent marriage.
    • Biffin is advertising her professional skills as a painter of miniatures. She is presenting herself to the sort of people who could afford to have their portrait painted. 
    • In this portrait Biffin has shown herself in the act of painting. She is dipping a paintbrush into a glass of water, to use with watercolour paints.
    • There is a small card or piece of Ivory A hard white substance like bone that forms the tusks of elephants and some other animals. (which miniaturists sometimes used to paint onto) in front of her.
    • Biffin used watercolour and graphite pencil to create this miniature portrait which measures just 10 cm overall.
    • This method of creating miniatures is highly skilled and precise, with the artist using a brush containing just a few hairs to create the fine details.
    • Biffin’s brush is tied to the top of her sleeve. This helped her technique of holding the brush between her shoulder and her cheek or mouth.
    • There is a Painting slope A flat surface positioned at an angle to allow for a comfortable working position. in front of her. This enabled her to position the piece she was working on at just the right angle. When she was painting, she leant her right shoulder forward, almost touching the table.
[She] was considered by connoisseurs an artist of much ability and the King’s patronage brought her work into repute.
Julia Clara Byrne, 1892

Who was Sarah Biffin?

  • As a child, Biffin was determined to learn how to write, sew and make art. She achieved all three. She taught herself to paint by holding a brush between her teeth.
  • She regularly performed her artistic skills at fairs. At the time, people living with disabilities were viewed differently to today. People would pay to see what Biffin could do. But some also bought the fine miniature portraits she painted.
  • In 1808, the Earl of Morton was so impressed with her work that he paid for her to be tutored by one of Queen Charlotte’s painters.
  • The Earl also presented Biffin’s work to King George III. This led later to her painting other members of the royal family including King George IV and Queen Victoria.
  • In 1821, Biffin had a work accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts A British institution headed by well-known artists who are elected as members. Its building in London houses an art school and space for exhibitions. , one of the most Prestigious Respected and admired as very important or of very high quality. art organisations of the time. From then on, she regularly exhibited her work there, alongside other celebrated artists such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
  • That same year, the Society of Arts A London-based institution dedicated to the arts and the improvement of society. awarded her their Large Silver Medal. This was a prestigious award from a highly respected institution.
  • Despite Biffin’s incredible achievements and the high standard of her miniatures, she was forgotten after her death and ignored until recently.
  • She produced many works, some of which have yet to be discovered as they have often been Attribute To say or believe that somebody is responsible for doing something, especially for saying, writing or painting something. to other artists. We are only now beginning to fully appreciate Biffin’s contribution to art and have yet to understand more about her artistic output. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is believed to be a self-portrait – Biffin is known to have painted her own portrait several times. This is the only known self-portrait where she shows herself in the act of painting.
  • This is a relatively rare portrait by Sarah Biffin. Since her death in 1850, many of her works have been credited to other artists. She is only now being rediscovered.  

Questions

  1. What do you think are the main skills needed to paint a miniature?
  1. How do you think Sarah Biffin challenged ideas about disability in the early 1800s? 
  1. Why do you think Sarah Biffin was forgotten about after she died?