As today, 11 November, is Remembrance Day, I thought this post would be appropriate.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is the now-famous installation in the Tower of London’s moat. It has been created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, and consists of 888, 246 ceramic poppies, each of which has been individually hand made, which have been planted in the moat by volunteers over the last couple of months. The first poppy was planted on 17 July and the installation officially opened on 5 August – the date of Britain’s entry into World War I. The last was planted this morning – Armistice Day. The number of poppies is significant – each one represents the death of a British or Commonwealth soldier during the war.
In an attempt to avoid the crowds, I got up super early on Monday morning and headed to the Tower before work. A surprising number of people had had the same idea, though things had apparently much improved from the weekend, when, so my friend told me, there were queues to get down to the walkway and some footpaths had to be closed. Though it was far from quiet, I still managed to get to the front and see everything I wanted to.
Though I had seen many photographs of the installation, pictures are no substitute for seeing it in real life – it makes even more of an impact. Looking at the sea of poppies and knowing that every single one represents a person, each with their own life and with family and friends who were left behind to mourn, is breathtakingly sad.
The installation is beautiful, but I don’t think this detracts from the seriousness of the subject. In many respects it is a very simple idea, but it works wonderfully: the poppy is a well-known symbol of Remembrance Day and is widely associated with the First World War, while the arrangement of poppies “spilling” out of the tower and into the moat represents the blood that was shed by those who died.
There have been criticisms levelled at the installation, notably this Guardian piece by Jonathan Jones. I think it makes some good points – for instance, he asks why we should only memorialise our own dead and not the casualties of all countries, and suggests that the poppy has become a political symbol rather than a focus on the dead of World War I. However, I think it’s understandable that a British commemoration based at the Tower of London would focus on national casualties, just as a village or town might choose to focus on the local dead. In practical terms, the moat is pretty full – there wouldn’t be any room for more poppies to represent the horrendously high number of the dead beyond Britain. I also think that by focusing on a precise number of World War I dead, the installation brings the focus of the poppy back to the 1914-18 conflict.
From today, the installation will slowly begin to be taken down. I highly recommend trying to visit before it goes – it’s an unforgettable experience. However, go early in the morning if you can, to avoid the crowds!