Gardens, London, Public Realm

Tower of London Remembers: The First World War

September 17, 2014

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To commemorate the centennial of the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the first World War the art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has transformed the famous moat surrounding the Tower of London into a field of bright red poppies, the flower that symbolizes the sacrifices made in war. It is a beautiful and evocative piece of public art that captures, in a simple yet eloquent manner, the enormity of that sacrifice.

Conceived by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and realized through a partnership with stage designer Tom Piper, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red will include, upon its completion, 888,246 individual ceramic poppies each representing a soldier from Britain or a British colony who died in WWI. The poppies are hand made, take three days to fabricate and each is unique. They are “planted” by volunteers.

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Eschewing formality the poppies are not arranged in orderly rows but instead undulate, forming a sea of red within the moat. They encase portions of the Tower flowing from a window and, in a 30 foot cascade, encircle its main entrance.

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As an interactive, evolving installation, the poppies appear strikingly alive, a lyrical homage to an event that having occurred one hundred years ago is just out of grasp of direct experience. Yet the installation has distinctly captivated the public, selling more than 200,000 poppies in just four days and raising £5 million by August 8, 2014. It is anticipated that £19 million will be raised when the project is completed.

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Individual poppies can be purchased for a £25 donation with the proceeds donated equally among six service charities dedicated to the support of veteran services. Buy a poppy and it will be sent to you when the installation concludes. The last day poppies will be added is November 11th, Armistice Day.

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But why the red poppy?

Among all the flowers that evoke memories and emotions of war it is the red poppy which gained this distinction first. In 1915 following the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier who died at the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, Col. John McCrae of Canada composed the poem “In Flanders Fields” which begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The field poppy (papaver rheoas) is a resilient plant that flowers annually and in Western Europe it is the first wildflower to appear when soil is churned up. It was, along with the lark’s song, one of the few signs of nature sustained on the battlefield. A delicate, red flower, the poppy grew in disturbed ground including burial fields and for many soldiers was a sign of renewal.

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Its transcendence as a modern day symbol of remembrance is attributed to two women, American Moina Michael and Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. Each devoted their life to securing the memory of those who lost their lives in the war and each campaigned to make the poppy a national and international memorial symbol. To read the full story visit: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/article/remembrance-poppy.htm.

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The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States adopted the poppy as its official memorial flower and organized a nationwide distribution in 1922. Beginning in 1924 disabled ex-servicemen, started making poppies to distribute in support of veterans, in “poppy factories” throughout the world where they continue to be made by disabled, needy and aging veterans in VA Hospitals who are compensated for their work. Donations provide financial assistance to maintain state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs while supporting veterans’ orphans and widows.

Cummins, the ceramic artist whose studio is hand making each poppy using techniques utilized by potters during WWI, found inspiration for the project in a line from a Derbyshire man who when surrounded by death and blood on a Flander’s field wrote “The Blood Swept lands, and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.” By transforming the poppy, symbol of remembrance, into a sea of red he has created a powerful metaphor that contrasts starkly with both the historic Tower and the modern city that surrounds it.

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What then of memory and loss?  With each passing generation the immediacy of loss is lessened. As a memorial Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is remarkably vibrant.  When complete, individual poppies will be sent to those who supported the project.  Each evening the Roll of Honour is read citing those who lost their lives in the war.  Responding to huge interest this is filmed and made available at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/VisitUs/Topthingstoseeanddo/Poppies/RollofHonour.

As so much energy and time is spent erecting memorials I conclude  with the acknowledgement that Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red engaged me in a manner few other memorials have.  For certain on the Sunday I was there it was thronging with visitors.  But more importantly, I was driven to explore and understand more deeply the significance of the poppy which I purchase each year outside my local supermarket.  This tangible reminder of lives lost holds a deep connection to the ongoing sacrifices and horror of war.

Papaver rhoeas by John Curtis (1791-1862) © RHS, Lindley Library

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved 

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No Comments

  • Reply Kim H September 17, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Lovely, Patrice. Thank you for bring this installation to my attention.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 17, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      My pleasure, Kim. It really is a wonderfully creative and engaging work of art.

  • Reply Pam Steel September 18, 2014 at 1:38 am

    I very much enjoyed reading your description of the installation, its history and seeing your excellent photos…(I almost felt like I’d been there) It certainly makes an impact with that color and the way the flowers seem to pour out the windows and spill onto the ground etc. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      Thanks, it was refreshing to visit a memorial that was thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed.

  • Reply Gallivanta September 18, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Pleased that you confirm that this memorial is as engaging as it appears to be to those of us who can only see it via the internet. You may be interested in my take on this memorial as it relates to my own family history. https://silkannthreades.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/one-of-many/#comments

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 20, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      Engaging it is as are the heartfelt family stories of the War. Thank you for sharing yours.

  • Reply Judy @ newenglandgardenandthread September 18, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Stunning. I lost two uncles in WWII. Thank you for highlighting this remembrance.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 19, 2014 at 11:11 pm

      You are more than welcome. This memorial brings the past into the present and reminds us of all who have sacrificed their lives in war.

  • Reply Pat Webster September 20, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    The WWI memorial does look stunning. It would be appreciated if you would re-post, adding the omitted word ‘fly’ to the poem. It is essential to the sense and rhythm.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 20, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      Done! Thank you for letting me know. It is easy to omit a word when writing these pieces despite endless, careful edits.

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