V&A’s sixteen ceramic poppies now on display

Sixteen ceramic poppies acquired by the Museum for its permanent collections are now on display in Room 103. These come from the poignant, dramatic and phenomenally crowd-drawing installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, sited in the dry moat of the Tower of London between 5th August and 11th November 2014. Commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, each ceramic poppy in the moat represented one of the 888,246 British or Colonial military fatalities. Sixteen of this vast number were members of V&A staff. Hence the Museum purchased sixteen ceramic poppies to honour the sacrifice of these men whose names are recorded in the Museum’s main entrance hall on a memorial tablet designed by sculptor and typographer Eric Gill (1919). For more details, see Danielle Thom’s 2014 post here.

Sixteen ceramic poppies from ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’

Sixteen ceramic poppies from ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, Tower of London, 2014.
Paul Cummins (artist, original concept); Tom Piper (installation design).
C.9 to 24-2015
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Paul Cummins Ceramics

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was the brainchild of ceramic artist Paul Cummins (b. Chesterfield 1977). Already well-known for his striking landscape installations of glazed flowers set in the grounds of stately homes Castle Howard, Althorp, Chatsworth and Blenheim, he also created an installation for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Paul proposed the making of thousands of individual ceramic poppies. No two would be identical, emphasising the individuality of each of the Fallen. ‘Planted’ together they would allow viewers to visualise the sheer number of lives lost. Paul wanted to use the Tower moat as it had been used as a training ground at the start of the War for City of London workers who had enlisted to fight. Historic Royal Palaces agreed and the idea was accepted as the UK’s main commemorative project for the First World War centenary.

The installation’s title came from a line of a poem by an unknown soldier killed in Flanders. Paul Cummins found this poem among First World War soldiers’ wills housed at the Derbyshire Record Office in Chesterfield. Another much better-known poem, ‘In Flanders’ Fields’ had been instrumental in making the poppy an enduring symbol of remembrance when its author, Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872-1918) was moved by the sight of fragile poppies growing so resiliently on the battlefields. Every November the Royal British Legion still sells paper poppies for charity. Likewise, Paul Cummins proposed selling all the six-petalled ceramic poppies to raise funds for six Service Charities.

Paul began to plan the design of the poppy head and source appropriate materials from early 2012. He ordered an incredible 497,000 kg. of clay from Potclays Ltd. of Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent. This came from their Brownhills mine between Lichfield and Walsall. Though made in quantities, each poppy head was made, assembled and glazed by hand. Professional ceramicists were assisted by teams of voluntary helpers who had a ceramic training background. All worked under Paul Cummins’ overall direction. Many poppies were made at his own premises in Derby while another team worked in a temporary studio set up within the premises of Johnson Tiles, Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent.

To make the poppies, two sizes of trefoils were stamped out of red earthenware clay rolled to 4mm thick. Holes were then stamped through the middle. Each flower was formed of a small trefoil linked to a larger one, the petals alternating. The six petals were manipulated to make each finished flower subtly different from the next. The V&A poppies for example vary in diameter from 103 mm. to 145 mm. and the height of each poppy head varies from 48 to 68 mm. Dried to a ‘leather hard’ state, the poppies were biscuit-fired, hand-dipped in two coats of bright red glaze and re-fired. The poppy stems are cut from bright steel bar formed to 5mm diameter rod. The standard stem height is 450 mm. but the heights were varied in the installation by the use of a range of stem heights up to a metre. Each ceramic poppy head is fixed to its steel stem by means of washers, a spacer and end cap. The surface of the steel became oxidised due to exposure to the elements.

In autumn 2013 Historic Royal Palaces commissioned Tom Piper (b. London 1964) to stage the installation itself. Piper is a freelance stage designer who was Associate Designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company for ten years to 2014. As part of his design, Tom created two dramatic metal structures which appeared to pour poppies from a window into the moat (the ‘Weeping Window’) and splash poppies out of the moat over the entrance to the Tower (the ‘Wave’). Following a UK tour until 2018, these two structures will be housed at the Imperial War Museum (London and Manchester). Paul Cummins and Tom Piper were both made MBEs in the 2015 New Year Honours, testimony to the extraordinary impact of ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ which was seen by about five million visitors including members of the royal family. The impact derived from its colour, overall form and spectacle, as well as the vast fluid scale which increased as poppies were ‘planted’. Seeing each separate ceramic poppy standing for individuals who died, visitors were able to take time for personal, quiet reflection and afterwards were able to purchase poppies in commemoration. The connection between the individual flower and mass interaction is key to all work by Paul Cummins. After the poppies had been gradually removed by volunteers, they were cleaned and packaged for distribution to their new owners including the V&A. The net proceeds were divided equally among the Services charities.

Eric Gill memorial tablet

Memorial tablet to the V&A Museum staff killed in the First World War. Hopton-wood stone with incised lettering; Eric Gill, 1919-20.
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London