Thursday 7 June 2012

Sarah Biffen (1784 - 1850)

Sarah Biffen  Engraving of self portrait

Sarah Biffen was a Victorian Artist who Dickens included amongst the characters in Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit and Martian Chuzzlewit. Sarah was born in the Somerset village of East Quantoxhead in 1784. She was a remarkable person who overcame enormous obstacles to become an artist. She was born without arms and only vestigial legs, so as an adult she was only 37 inches tall!
By the age of twelve she had learnt to read and use her mouth to hold a pen to write. She had also learnt to embroider using her teeth to work the needle.
By the age of 15 she was part of a traveling fair and it is said that the owner of the  sideshow in which she appeared Emmanuel Dukes taught her to paint. This was to enhance her as an attraction that people would pay to see at work.
1812 Broadside

Sarah later in her life insisted that she had been treated with kindness by the Dukes and certainly they provided her with a means of making her own living. During St. Bartholomew’s Fair in 1808, the Earl of Morton came to see the painting ‘Limbless Wonder’ and was genuinely surprised by how talented the girl was.
Sarah Biffen miniature self portrait 

The Earl was so impressed that he sponsored Sarah and paid for lessons from Royal Academy painter, William Craig. With support from the Earl Sarah became a painter of miniature portraits with a studio in London. During this time she was awarded a medal from the Royal Society of Arts and five of her paintings were accepted by the Royal Academy.
Portrait of a Lady

The Royal Family commissioned a series of miniatures from her including one of Edward, Duke of Kent, painted by Sarah in 1839 and purchased by the Duke's daughter, Queen Victoria. It is now part of the Royal Collection.
Miniature Watercolour  on Ivory

Queen Victoria awarded her a Civil List pension and she retired to Liverpool were she continued to paint, this is a portrait of James West captain of the “Atlantic” which carried mail between New York and Liverpool.
Captain James West 1844

Sarah Biffen died October 2, 1850 at the age of 66. She is buried in St James Cemetery in Liverpool.


Susan said...

How incredible to read about this rather amazing woman. The Duke of Kent portrait is superb. What a story!

Journeyman said...

Glad you liked the story Susan, she had great determination. Her first achievement was to learn to read. Then she insisted on going to school! Her own father was an illiterate farm labourer. Apparently she would be taken to the village pup to read the newspaper out loud!

Gatepost productions said...

Just picked you up from Susan;s blog!

Two reasons I should become a follower of yours:

a) My family come from Pembrokeshire all the way back to 1695 - although I have never been there - grew up in Kent.

b) I'm a Shipwright - who never builds boats (Admiralty Apprentice/journeyman 1953 - 1959)

Will crawl all over your blog later - it looks really interesting

Journeyman said...

Hi John, that’s really nice of you to introduce yourself. Pembrokeshire is a great place you must visit some time. Mothers people are from Pembrokeshire, though how many generations they go back I don’t know.
Serving your time in the 50's would be very thorough especially with the Admiralty, which dockyard where you at?
Hope you enjoy looking around, try not to get lost :) Dave

Gatepost productions said...

Cheers,Dave. Sheerness Dockyard

Anonymous said...

Sarah Biffen, buried in St James Cemetery Liverpool where Charles Dickins would patrol while being a special constable during his time in Liverpool.

Journeyman said...

Thanks for that information on Dickens in Liverpool, I wonder if he met her there?
Sorry for taking so long to reply, Dave.

Susan said...

Hi, Dave - its so long since you last posted. I miss you!

Philpp Biffen...Artist said...

A wonderful story of a great lady who overcame so much to paint, and not only paint but to be accepted by the Royal Academy and the Royal Collection to boot.

John Nixon said...

Hello. I would like to use the miniature portrait of the Duke of York in a forthcoming self-published book. Can you tell me if you own it? I can't find this picture anywhere else on the internet.

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