Fine Art
3:48 am
Sat August 16, 2014

A Sea Of Ceramic Poppies Honors Britain's WWI Dead

Originally published on Tue November 11, 2014 3:10 pm

How do you memorialize an event that happened 100 years ago? Almost nobody is alive who witnessed the start of World War I. In England, at the Tower of London, an unusual artistic commemoration is blooming. Its name comes from a poem, written by an anonymous soldier in World War I: "The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red."

The Tower of London was built in the 11th century, and for most of the years since then its moat was full of water. But today, operations manager John Brown looks out and describes the sight: "In effect, a green field surrounding the castle, and within that, we have started to build this huge artistic installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies."

That's one flower for each soldier from Britain or the British colonies who died in WWI. Each is handmade, and volunteers plant each poppy in the soil by hand.

The red poppy is a symbol of remembrance for a reason: In Western Europe, it is the first wildflower to appear when soil is churned up. So after a war, fields where soldiers fell become vast expanses of crimson blooms.

The ceramic poppies at the Tower of London are not planted in orderly rows. They look like an undulating sea from afar. Up close, each bloom is unique. Droplets cling to them from a recent shower. Against the walls of the tower, they crest like a wave of water — or, given the color, like a wave of blood. They cascade from one of the tower windows to the ground like a waterfall, and a 30-foot curl of red poppies crests over the tower's main entrance.

The concept came from a ceramic artist named Paul Cummings. He decided to make the flowers, but he had no place to put them. "So we said, we have the real estate," explains Brown. A British theatrical designer, Tom Piper, provided the design and interpretation of the idea.

"Every morning when I walk through the site just to make sure everything's ready, you get your own moment of inner peace for yourself," says Jim Duncan. He's one of the Yeoman Warders, the iconic beefeaters who live and work at the tower. For the next three months, he will be overseeing the planting project.

"You get the goose pimples. You get the lump in the throat," he says. "And then you get a great bunch of people that come in, work hard, work together as a team. It was raining this afternoon — nobody left."

The sound of hammering comes from the corner of the moat where rain-soaked volunteers are working in matching red shirts. They pound metal stakes into the ground, then place a red ceramic blossom on top, supporting each one with small rubber plugs.

Lynne England came from the New Forest on England's southern coast to plant poppies with her husband, Arthur, in honor of her great-uncle. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for holding his position while under fire during WWI. "He was shot three times, but he held position. And because of that, he saved a lot of British lives. So we felt we had to come and plant a poppy for him today," she says.

"I'm almost in tears just talking to you now," she says. "Just look at it — every single poppy, every poppy you hold, is somebody's life."

"And the fact that they're all handmade and they're all individual," says her husband, "it's not like you're doing some process and repeating something. Each time feels very, very special."

The first of these flowers was planted July 17, and the installation officially opened Aug. 5, the first full day of Britain's engagement in the war. The last one will be planted on Nov. 11, Armistice Day, when the guns fell silent. They'll come down after that. People can buy them online — thousands have already been sold — and the money will go to veterans' charities.

Even though each blossom represents a British or colonial life lost in the war, a staffer pointed out that more than 100,000 Americans died, too. So as we concluded our interviews, she handed me a red poppy, and I planted it in the soil at the Tower of London.


The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

By Anonymous (Unknown Soldier)

The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As I put my hand to reach,
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.

As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead

My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.

It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell, to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more

I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

How do you memorialize an event that happened a hundred years ago? Almost nobody is alive who witnessed the start of World War I in 1914. The Tower of London, an unusual artistic commemoration, is blooming. The work is called "The Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red." Its name comes from a poem written by an anonymous World War I soldier. NPR's Ari Shapiro paid a visit, where he met the Tower of London's head of operations, John Brown.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Describe where we're standing right now.

JOHN BROWN: We're standing on the entrance to an 11th-century castle in what was the moat. So if you came here 200 years ago, we'd be under water. But it was filled in and is now dry. So it's an effective green field surrounding the castle. And within that we have started to build this huge artistic installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies.

SHAPIRO: That's one flower for each soldier from Britain or the British colonies who died in the first world war. The red poppy is a symbol of remembrance for a specific reason. Here in Western Europe, it is the first wildflower to appear when soil is churned up. So after the war, fields where soldiers fell became vast expanses of crimson blooms. We're now walking through the moat in the Tower of London in this curving pathway that cuts through these thousands of poppies. And when you look at it, it's like an undulating sea. But then up close, you see each one - water clinging to it from the recent rain. And as you approach the walls of the tower, the poppies almost crest like a wave of water or, given the color, like a wave of blood.

BROWN: For the next three months, I'm the site manager for this fantastic display that you can see here of poppies to commemorate the first world war.

SHAPIRO: Jim Duncan is one of the Yeoman Warders, the iconic beefeaters who live and work at the Tower of London. Now he helps oversee the volunteers who are planting these ceramic flowers.

JIM DUNCAN: Every morning when I walk through the site just to make sure everything's ready, you get your own moment of inner peace for yourself. You get the goose pimples. You get the lump in the throat. And you know what it's for. And then you get a great bunch of people that come in, work hard, work together as a team. It was raining this afternoon - nobody left.

ARTHUR ENGLAND: Lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

LYNNE ENGLAND: My name's Lynne England and this is my husband Arthur. And my great-uncle got the VC in World War I. He was a...

SHAPIRO: For Americans who are not familiar - explain the VC.

L. ENGLAND: The Victoria Cross - so it's the ultimate medal for the ultimate act of bravery. And he was awarded that in the first world war for holding his position whilst under fire. He was shot three times but he held position. And because of that, he saved a lot of British lives. So we felt we had to come and plant a poppy for him today.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

SHAPIRO: So describe how it felt to walk up to the Tower of London and see this for the first time.

L. ENGLAND: Well, I'm almost in tears just talking to you now. I think it's very, very emotional, isn't it? Just look at it. Every single poppy - every poppy you hold is somebody's life - represents somebody's life, somebody who died in the war.

A. ENGLAND: And the fact that they're all handmade and are all individual - just every time you do it, it's not like you're doing some process and repeating something. Each time feels very, very special.

SHAPIRO: The first of these flowers was planted August 5 - the first full day of fighting in the war. The last one will be planted November 11, Armistice Day, when the guns went silent. The flowers will come down after that. People can buy them online and the money will go to veterans' charities. Even though each of these blossoms represent a British or colonial life lost in the war, a staffer pointed out that more than a 100,000 Americans died too. So she handed me a red poppy and I planted it in the soil.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: we incorrectly say that the first of the ceramic poppies was planted on Aug. 5. It was actually planted on July 17. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.