Paul Cummins - the man behind the Tower of London poppy installation

Paul with the 'Candy' installation at Chelsea Flower Show

Paul with the 'Candy' installation at Chelsea Flower Show - Credit: Archant

Paul Cummins achieved fame last year with his commemorative poppy installation at the Tower of London. Five years on from his first interview, Mike Smith talks to him again

The 'Weeping Window' section of the Tower of London installation

The 'Weeping Window' section of the Tower of London installation - Credit: Archant

In 2010, I wrote a piece for Derbyshire Life called ‘A Budding Talent’. It profiled Paul Cummins, a ceramic artist who had won first prize in a show of work by final-year art students at Derby University, where he had exhibited an installation of 400 ceramic poppies. Vice Chancellor John Coyne had been so impressed by the novelty of Paul’s work that he had recommended his student to the Duke of Devonshire, who agreed to commission the artist to create 500 ceramic tulips that would be displayed alongside 25,000 real flowers at Chatsworth’s Florabundance Festival.

Before writing my piece I had visited Paul at the family home in Hasland, where I had found him hard at work in a garden shed where he was attempting single-handedly to meet the deadline he had been given to complete his demanding commission. Whereas the ‘poppies’ of his degree show had simply been small ceramic bowls mounted on galvanised steel roads, the Chatsworth tulips were clearly destined to be much more than ‘pots on poles’. I watched each tulip head being meticulously shaped and painted by Paul until it became a realistic depiction of an individual flower.

Five years on from that first encounter, I met up again with Paul. The garden shed had been replaced as a workplace by a large workshop and studio on a trading estate in Derby, where the ceramicist is assisted by a team of craftspeople, supplemented by office staff who deal with orders and enquiries from all over the world.

The remarkable growth of Paul’s business from those single-handed early efforts has been nourished by the astounding success last year of his installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London. This poignant temporary memorial to the 888,246 people from Britain and the Commonwealth who died in the First World War was visited by 5 million people and raised £10 million pounds for charity from the subsequent sale of the individual poppies.

Paul Cummins in his studio with an example from his Tulipmania collection (photo Mike Smith)

Paul Cummins in his studio with an example from his Tulipmania collection (photo Mike Smith) - Credit: Archant

Recalling the genesis of the installation, Paul said, ‘I came up with the idea in the local library where I had come across the line “Blood swept lands and seas of red” in the will of a Derbyshire soldier who had died at the front. When it dawned on me that this phrase could be made meaningful by creating a sea of ceramic poppies to represent the soldiers who had died, I contacted the War Graves Commission to obtain the actual number of casualties. My next job was to find a suitable location. Initially, I contacted the authorities with a view to using one of London’s parks, but this suggestion was rejected because the installation would be vulnerable in a public open space.’

Describing the final choice of a location as ‘serendipity’, Paul said: ‘I decided that I would ring the Tower of London. To my surprise, my call was put through to the authorities immediately, but only because they had mistaken me for a Paul Cummins who was already known to them. As luck would have it, they had not yet formulated any plans to commemorate the anniversary of the First World War and, after considering my proposal for a couple of weeks, they accepted it.’

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Creating the installation was a mammoth task requiring the recruitment of hundreds of volunteers, both to make and to ‘plant’ the ceramic poppies. Paul worked so feverishly himself that he caught his hand in the electric machinery that he was using, with the result that the fingers of his right hand were crushed and the middle finger had to be amputated. Seeing me wince as he showed me the injury, he said, ‘I didn’t feel any pain at the time because the nerves in my fingers were severed.’

The astounding success of the poppy display has brought Paul lots of accolades and made his name known worldwide. He has been awarded the MBE, been given an honorary doctorate from the University of Derby and been presented with the South Bank Show Award for the Visual Arts.

Ceramic tulips from the ‘Tulipmania’ collection

Ceramic tulips from the ‘Tulipmania’ collection - Credit: Archant

The need to make acceptance speeches at award ceremonies and to respond to numerous requests for television and radio interviews could have been a considerable ordeal for someone who suffers from severe dyslexia, but when I asked Paul how he had coped with the public exposure, he said: ‘I never prepare what I am going to say in advance, because I would find it difficult to remember or read a prepared talk. I simply speak off the cuff.’

A sign of Paul’s growing confidence is that he has spoken fluently on all these occasions. In fact, he has coped very well indeed with the public exposure to which he has been subjected. I also get the impression that his new-found fame has not yet sunk in, probably because he has been too busy applying his mind to new ceramic projects.

As with the poppy installation, his most recent project has been inspired by something he has read. He said: ‘I spent a lot of time in the library studying the ‘Tulipmania’ movement of the seventeenth century, when the tulip had become an obsession, particularly in the Netherlands. Bulbs were being bought and traded for thousands of pounds, and botanists and florists were competing to create ever more beautiful varieties. The best examples were treated like rare porcelain.’

These findings prompted Paul to come up with a series of special editions inspired by some of the most prized tulips in history. They include Semper Augustus, a beautiful red and white variegated tulip, the Fanny Kemble, a white tulip with mauve stripes, and Polyphemus, a yellow and black tulip from the Ottoman Empire.

The ‘Candy’ installation at the Chelsea Flower Show

The ‘Candy’ installation at the Chelsea Flower Show - Credit: Archant

As well as producing and marketing individual tulips from his ‘Tulipmania’ collection, Paul has used tulips as the theme of his spectacular installation at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. This took the form of a 26 feet-high tower coated with 2,400 hand-painted ceramic tulips, all held in place by reflective copper discs. Like the poppies from the Tower of London installation, the individual tulips were offered for sale after the show finished, with £10 from each sale going to charity.

Whatever the form his future projects may take, Paul is determined that they will be based on flowers. He said, ‘Several members of my family were keen gardeners and I have always been passionate about flowers. I try to make all my flower installations meaningful and I believe that my ceramic flowers can help to bring back treasured memories for the people who buy them.’

Chesterfield Borough Council is currently expressing an interest is displaying the ‘Weeping Window’ section of the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation at the Tower of London, not only as a way of remembering people from the area who gave their lives in the war but also as a means of paying tribute to Paul as a local man who has achieved so much in his chosen field.

Before choosing to train as a ceramicist, Paul had followed his father’s advice by taking courses that were likely to lead to a secure job. He spent two years on a catering course and three years on an architecture degree before realising that he was not cut out for either of these professions. He said: ‘Ten years ago, I decided that it was time for me to train for a job that I could be passionate about, whatever the employment prospects might be. Fortunately, my choice has worked out well for me.’

Examples of special editions from Paul Cummins’ ‘Tulipmania’ series can be viewed and ordered from