We’re used to hearing about blood being spilled from the Tower of London. But this image is a haunting, poignant one that – fittingly -‘we will never forget.’
A chilling sound of a single trumpet, rings through the air. It’s a sombre moment for those of us gathered around the stunning poppy exhibition at the Tower of London. We push forward, taking it in patient turns to edge closer to the railings, just to glimpse those blood red, ceramic poppies, poking out of the grass. Perhaps blood red is too strong a context to use here. But…that’s what ceramic artist, Paul Cummins, was going for when he created this masterpiece. He called it, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.’
And that is exactly what it is.
Just by looking at the stream of red pouring out from the window of the Tower, the first image that struck my mind was – it’s been shot through the heart. And it bleeds out, flowing through the moat, where many centuries ago, long before the Great War, the Thames would have flowed. It symbolizes an image – of a soldier perhaps, pierced by a bullet to the chest and collapsing to his death on the frontline. It’s gruesome. But it was reality. In fact, it still is for some soldiers today.
As we run head to head with the centenary of the Great War, Paul Cummins’s idea to turn a tragic and devastating event into a work of art, is an oxymoron if ever there was one. But it does work. When I stood amongst the crowd, peering over the gates, I could admire the beauty of the tragedy. Each poppy represents a soldier fallen during the war. From this country, extending to the Commonwealth. I think that’s the the most poignant factor running through your mind when you see the poppies up close. It wasn’t just England, but her colonies too, all banding together.
There’s an extraordinary hush that settles on the crowd once you reach the front. I heard a woman whisper to her partner behind me, “Each of these poppies are different.”
The different poppies represent the different soldiers. Each poppy is unique like they were. Those soldiers aren’t some name on a wall or a granite slab. They were people. Each and every one of them, special in their own way. The unique poppies also represent the different lives these men led before the war. Most of them led normal, ordinary lives. The Upper class men led their own kind of normal life. But once they joined the army – they all fused together. This is how they’re remembered now.
The Tower of London was built in 1066 at the end of the Norman conquest. The central tower, known as ‘The White Tower,’ was built by William the Conqueror. The tower underwent several phases of expansion by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I. This tower simply drips with ancient history. But it’s a history that’s usually associated with gruesome events. Such as the murders of the Princes, Anne Boleyn’s execution and Guy Fawkes’s torture – to name but a few. However, these thoughts are immediately hushed as soon as you rest your gaze upon the poppies, swaying lightly in the breeze. Reminding us of their presence. And of a different kind of death. One of sacrifice. England and Great Britain had suffered through wars before….but the Great War was ‘the war to end all wars.’ It’s only right, that the most ancient building in London should pay homage to that. The Tower was also built during a time when the country was so used to the notion of war. Just look at the battle marks streaking the walls and you will realise that. This exhibit finally lays ALL the casualties to rest.
There are many contexts that flood to mind when drinking in this image. Perhaps it’s the sea of blood linking the tower to the soldiers, or the sadness of these delicate flowers mirroring the delicate loss of lives. For me, it has to be this one…the most. The Tower of London also houses the Queen’s Crown Jewels. The poppies surrounding the tower also feels like the fallen soldiers are guarding the fortress, protecting their monarchy one final time before they are removed on November 12th. Many people are petitioning for the poppies to stay, so it can summon more attention which I would want too. However, artist Paul Cummins has stated that taking them down after Remembrance Day would add a ‘transience,’ to the art, being sent to people all over the world.
I’m going to leave you all now with a quote from Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flander’s Field.”
‘Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields’