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An Amazing Feat of Skill

This fascinating object is over 200 years old. It is a picture made from small pieces of paper cut into patterns. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads ‘this was done by Jane Hawtin, born without hands at Coventry…1769, May 3 1780′.

Incredibly, a diary preserved in Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service includes a description of Jane and her amazing talent. 
“I went and saw the ‘Dwarf Man’ in Norwich, who goes by the name of James Harris from Coventry. He is exactly three feet high and very well proportioned in every respect. With him, was a girl which exceeded everything I ever saw. She had no hands or arms, and yet she was wonderfully clever with her feet. She cut out a watch paper for me with her toes. She opened my watch and put it in after she had done. Her name was Jane Hawtin, and she was about 22 years old. She talks very sensibly and appears very happy in her situation. She uses her toes as well as any fingers. For cutting the watch paper I gave her one shilling. To the dwarf I gave sixpence.”- Extract from the diary of James Woodforde, November 17th 1784.

At this time and throughout the 1800s, young girls often made a needlework sampler as proof of their embroidery skills. Examples of these samplers can be found on permanent display in the Herbert’s History Gallery and What’s In Store Gallery. 

Jane Hawtin’s paper cutting represents more than a display of skills and patience; it shows how she was able to make a living. From the mid-1500s people who deviated from the physical norm were considered of interest and earned a living by entertaining crowds. Today these views are seen as unacceptable.

Written by Ali Wells, Keeper of Collections at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum