PG 3348

Sarah Biffin, Mrs E.M. Wright

PG 3348

1830

Willie Newell, National Galleries of Scotland Gallery Attendant This Portrait of the Month is selected by Willie Newell, National Galleries of Scotland Gallery Attendant

This self-portrait miniature is by Sarah Biffen (1784-1850). Sarah, who was born with the condition phocomelia, had no arms or legs, yet she taught herself to paint by holding a brush in her mouth. She eventually became a highly successful artist, having paintings accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy, and she was referenced in literary works by Thackeray and Dickens.

At the age of twelve Sarah’s family were paid to apprentice her to Emmanuel Dukes, a showman who displayed her in fairs and circuses as ‘The Eighth Wonder’. Crowds would pay to watch Sarah paint, write and sew using her mouth, and in 1808 she was spotted by the Earl of Morton who recognised her artistic talent and paid for her to receive painting lessons from William Craig, a Royal Academician who was painter in watercolours to Queen Charlotte and drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales.

Aged around 29 Sarah left Emmanuel Dukes to become a professional miniaturist, setting up a studio in London. She became immensely popular, painting for three monarchs (George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria) and being awarded a silver medal by the Society of Arts in 1821.

In 1824 Sarah married William Stephen Wright, and although the marriage was short-lived she painted and exhibited under her married name. In 1824 she moved to Liverpool, where her paintings eventually went out of fashion. Although she received a small pension form Queen Victoria, her friends and supporters created a subscription for a more generous annuity for her to live off. Sarah died in Liverpool in 1850, aged 66. This remarkable self-portrait reveals something of Sarah’s dignity and strong character, as well as showing the determination and skill of a woman who rose from being a side-show exhibit to a celebrated royal portrait painter.