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Paul Cummins, Poppies at the Tower of London

by Helen Johnson

Published: November 2014

In Remembrance
Ceramic Poppies at the Tower of London

One man's vision becomes a reality that touches the hearts of people from all nations.

Paul Cummins

Paul Cummins is the brains behind the project to plant 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. They represent each British and Commonwealth serviceman who died in the First World War and, says Paul, “If you tell a school child how many died, it’s just a number. But when they see 888,246, it means so much more.”
Paul’s inspiration came from an unsigned will in Chesterfield archives. The unknown soldier wrote of ‘Blood-soaked lands and seas of red, where Angels fear to tread.’ This led Paul to conceive a project to celebrate the courage of those who gave their lives, to, says Paul, “Change the world, and give us the lives we live today.” And, by eventually selling the poppies, he hopes to raise money for today’s  Service charities.
While the idea seems simple, achieving it was not.  Ceramics is a second career for Paul, who graduated from the University of Derby in 2009. He began making puncheons, decorated with graffiti flowers.  The flowers developed a life of their own, and he became known for landscape installations of ceramic flowers. This led to commissions for the Cultural Olympiad of 2012. Paul says, “All my art  has meanings – at the Olympics, the sweet peas were about genetic engineering; the tulips about financial bubbles, and so on.”
When Paul got the idea for his poppies, he realised he would need a big canvas, and considered venues. He says, “I never tender. I literally rang the Tower of London, said what I’d done before, and can I do this for World War 1. Three or four weeks later, they called and said yes.”
Organising the project, however, was a major challenge. Paul says, “I’d never worked with anyone before, but this is a massive task and I needed help.”
He needed even more help after suffering an accident, trapping his fingers in a press. He says, “I was in hospital for weeks, with months of rehab. It nearly destroyed the project, but the people of Derby and Stoke were magnificent, they stepped in and helped.”
Manufacturers; potters; suppliers; students; skilled technicians; all came forward to help, with time, expertise, and materials.  Others contributed money: Paul was responsible for funding the project.
It was important that the poppies were all individual, so, says Paul, “We have 50 people in the factory making the poppies, putting something of themselves into the making.”
The poppies then had to be ‘planted’, and, says Paul, “The Tower people are brilliant at logistics, and they approached Tom Piper, a stage designer,  to handle how the poppies are displayed. The poppies are planted by volunteers, to a broad scheme by Tom, but each planter does it slightly differently. It gives a natural feel: the spirit and energy of all those lost young lives.”
These volunteers spread the message over social media, resulting, says Paul, “In thousands of emails.  It’s a simple idea, that’s touched the world.”
As for future projects, Paul is saying nothing as yet. But I, for one, will be watching to see what he does next.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ runs until
11 November 2014. The installation will then be dismantled, and the poppies sold. Profits will be distributed between six service charities.

To contact Paul and see a video of the poppies
being made:

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