The iconic poppies come to Derby
- Credit: Getty Images for 14-18 NOW
Nigel Powlson talks to the Derbyshire creator Paul Cummins of the poppy installation
OF all the commemorations prompted by the centenary of the First World War, it was the tide of blood red poppies tumbling into the moat at the Tower of London that best seemed to link the sacrifices of the past to acts of remembrance in the present.
The 888,246 ceramic poppies on display were a simple but powerful elegy for a conflict that was fast fading from living memory.
The installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was seen by five million people and was surely the most photographed subject in the British Isles in 2014.
Three years later and those poppies are not only still capturing the public’s imagination, they are also, in a sense, coming home.
Conceived and created by county artist Paul Cummins, whose studio is on Pride Park, they were inspired by a line from the will of a Derbyshire soldier who died in Flanders and in their latest form can be seen at the Silk Mill this June.
After the installation was dismantled at the Tower of London, two focal elements of the original installation have been touring the UK.
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Weeping Window features several thousand of the handmade ceramic poppies cascading from windows of prominent buildings.
Wave is a sweeping arch of scarlet poppy heads suspended on towering stalks.
These two sculptures conceived and created by Paul, in collaboration with designer Tom Piper, are continuing to mark the centenary of the First World War up until the 100th anniversary of its conclusion in November 2018.
The pieces were initially the key sculptural elements in Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, where they were surrounded by a vast field of ceramic poppies, each one planted by a volunteer in memory of the life of a British or colonial soldier lost during the conflict.
Weeping Window can be seen at the Silk Mill from 9th June until 23rd July and Paul is delighted that Derby is among the cities where the installation can be seen on its tour.
He says: ‘Lots of locations around the country applied to host the poppies and we drew up a shortlist of places that had a significant connection with the First World War. The first one was at Woodhorn Museum. It was chosen to host Weeping Window due to the major part that Woodhorn Colliery played in the war effort. Weeping Window here was coming off the winding wheel at the No.1 Heapstead – 55 feet in the air.
‘In my head it always made sense to have a Derby venue on that list, we just had to wait for the right bid. There was talk originally about the cathedral but it didn’t have the connections with the First World War which the Silk Mill does – grain and medical supplies were produced there at the time.’
As Weeping Window moves around the country each venue creates its own challenges.
‘At Hull Maritime Museum it’s not actually touching the building at all,’ says Paul. ‘At the Silk Mill, as it’s a World Heritage site, we will do something similar. We have to respect the buildings that are hosting the exhibitions. The relationship with each building is different as they all have their own shapes and quirks. We have a rough idea of how it’s going to look but once we get on site, it can change and things in reality can be different to a preview drawing or a flat plan.
‘It’s always different and, if they are liked in the place they go, they somehow look better.
‘The other important thing was to make sure that no-one ever had to pay to see the sculptures. That limited the places where they could go as it couldn’t be anywhere there was an admission gate to get in. That was one of the biggest challenges, convincing people it had to be free.
‘Every one of those flowers to me is somebody. They have a story behind them that is forever gathering and growing with every photograph so we didn’t want anyone to have to pay to see them.’
The seemingly delicate poppies are proving pretty resilient in their nomadic life.
Paul says: ‘We have only probably lost one and that was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park when it flooded. They are all from the Tower of London and if they do break there are conservators there that put them back together.’
Even now, Paul is still overwhelmed by the public response to his work.
He said: ‘It is slightly surreal. It turned into a massive community project in the end with 27,000 volunteers putting them in and pulling them out. We gave people an idea of what it should look like but they also made it look like they wanted it to. When they say “this represents my dad” then you really just have to let them loose with it.
‘It’s a living object now in my head. It has become more than the sum of its parts.
‘In this country we have this connection with the red poppy that has always been a celebration of the people who fought for us and our way of life – that’s how I see it. Rather than it being this tragic disaster I see it as a celebration of these lives that were laid down for us. They weren’t wasted lives because we are still here and able to do what we do and we carry on and we try not to let people destroy what was fought for. That sacrifice is as relevant now as it was then.
‘The poppies started out as an art piece but they are now more about community and conversation. They are attractive to look at wherever they go but it’s the story that keeps building now that is what really matters.
‘It all started with that line in a will. One person’s sacrifice gave me the idea to celebrate everyone’s sacrifice and it’s quite an emotional thing for me now.’
On top of that emotional resonance Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red raised £9.5 million for six service charities.
Paul says: ‘I’m really glad we managed to do it, that people enjoyed them and I’m delighted that in our own small way we have been able to help people. I met the Royal British Legion and they told me that it raised more than they expected and brought the poppy back to the forefront of everyone’s understanding. The money side of it was great and proved just as powerful as the installation itself.’
In November 2018 the Wave finishes at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester and the Weeping Window at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Paul says: ‘After that they will eventually go into the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum and they can then display them or loan them out so I don’t know where they will end up. After the first year they can go abroad. They might be seen every November, it will be entirely up to the museums.
‘They will be like any artwork that is given to a museum but I’m hoping they will be on display from time to time as people still want to see them. It’s one of the shocks for me as I didn’t realise that when I first started this. My work is meant to be transient but this has just got a life of its own. At the Tower of London, everything became quiet, even though it was in this big city. It made people stop and think.’
If you do pause for reflection at the Silk Mill this summer don’t be surprised to see Paul standing with you.
‘With being so close I have no excuses and I will probably be there every day when it’s going to be on. I watch people’s reactions or them taking photos.
‘It’s a living entity. For me it’s like a child that I have sent out into the world so yes, I keep watching it grow.’