In partnership with Historic Royal Palaces
Each of the hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies currently on display at the Tower of London has been made by hand in a Derby workshop. “Always at the forefront of my mind is, ‘Each one of these represents a soldier that died’,” says one of the artists. “Some days it can be emotional, very, very emotional.”
As you approach Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, a stunning crimson sweep of colour installed on the bright green grass of the Tower’s moat, the most striking thing is the sheer number of flowers there.
The installation, by ceramicist Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper, commemorates each of the 888,246 British fatalities of the First World War, 100 years after it started. Poppies are being ‘planted’ daily until Armistice Day on 11 November.
One of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders planted the first on 17 July. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge planted theirs in August, following in the footsteps of thousands of volunteers from across the UK.
Standing on Tower Hill Terrace looking down at the moat, the effect is of a dramatic undulating river of red, and poppies appear to pour from the top of the bridge at the Tower’s entrance, creating a powerful contrast with its stone walls.
Historical inspiration from the First World War
Paul Cummins was inspired to create the work by the will of a Derbyshire man who signed up and died at Flanders. “I don’t know his name or where he was buried or anything about him,” he says.
“But this line he wrote, when everyone he knew was dead and everywhere around him was covered in blood, jumped out at me: ‘The blood swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.’
“I believe he meant the angels to refer to his children.”
About 70 per cent of those who created the poppies are artists and all have links to the armed forces or to someone who has died in service, giving each a particular significance.
“My own artwork is about memories, [so] this really hit a chord in my psyche. It resonated well with me,” says sculptor Lorraine Clewlow, who worked around the clock along with others in Cummins’ team to painstakingly create each flower.
Blocks of clay were sliced and made into sheets, then large and small flower heads were stamped out and put together. These have been fired, glazed and delivered to the Tower for two-foot wire stalks to be added.
“People should get involved in physically making something, so that it means something more,” Cummins says in the commemorative film that is shown in the Flint Tower, overlooking the moat.
“I prefer to make my work how it used to be made 100 or 150 years ago, which is [with] as little machinery as possible.”
An evolving piece of art
The installation is evolving as poppies are added every day. Each evening at twilight the names of 180 serving military killed during the First World War are being read out in a Roll of Honour, followed by the Last Post call played by a single bugler. The public can put names forward using a weekly nomination system.
The Tower of London’s moat not only provides a powerful backdrop to the display, it is also where the 1,600 City workers who had enlisted in the army swore their oaths of allegiance, before being trained and deployed to battle in August 1914.
It is strange to see black-and-white photographs of City volunteers in their suits and straw boaters, standing in the moat 100 years ago, unsure of what lay ahead, and far from the environs of the Stock Exchange where some of them came from.
The special exhibition in the Flint Tower also displays a series of images of soldiers in military uniform in the moat, while video footage shows the men training for battle before marching out to war.
“We hope that people across Britain, Europe and the rest of the world will join us by being a part of this unique moment which we feel reflects the magnitude of this centenary year,” says General the Lord Dannatt, constable of the Tower of London.
Click here for more information and to buy a poppy for £25 plus postage and packaging. All net proceeds plus a guaranteed ten per cent from every poppy sold will be shared equally among the six charities.