Interview: the art of Armistice

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A poppy for every British and Commonwealth soldier who died in the First World War

Paul Cummins

On 11 November, Armistice Day, the last of 888,246 ceramic poppies, representing the soldiers from Britain and its former colonies who died in the Great War, will be planted around the Tower of London. This will complete the installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which has been created by the artist Paul Cummins with the theatre designer Tom Piper and assembled by thousands of volunteers. According to Fiamma Montagu, the project’s producer, Cummins “was originally going to site the work in a London park, but there wasn’t sufficient security, so we went to Historic Royal Palaces, who immediately liked the idea. Paul initiated the whole idea and paid for it up front, then decided to allocate the proceeds to charity as part of the work.” The poppies, which have been sold individually in aid of six military charities, will be dispersed from 12 November. The makers have held in reserve two groups—“Wave” (3,200 poppies priced at £75,000) and “Weeping Window” (2,000 poppies priced at £50,000)—in the hope that they will find a buyer able to put them on public display. We spoke to the artist about the project.

The Art Newspaper: What inspired the idea of poppies?

Paul Cummins: I read a poem by a soldier about the “blood-swept lands and seas of red, where angels dare to tread”, which inspired the whole installation. I decided to do a project based on a visualisation of the soldiers who died, as it seemed such a massive, incomprehensible number.

How many people did it take to produce so many poppies?

There were around 300 poppy-makers. In addition, we had metal-makers, rubber part-makers, kiln technicians and many more people making boxes, packing and so on. We started the project in August 2013 with a small team, and this June, we added significant numbers, so we have had at least 400 people making and manufacturing poppies and parts.

Was it difficult to make them all by hand?

Yes, but I wanted every flower to be individual, each one representing a soldier. They couldn’t be made in any other way or in any other country. They had to be British. We used traditional techniques to reflect how things would have been made during the war.

How much clay did you use?

400 tons.

Why did you collaborate with a stage designer?

Working with Tom was interesting because I’ve never collaborated with anyone before. He brought his staging abilities to the project, and created the two structures, “Weeping Window” and “Wave”, that shaped the installation.

How is this different from your previous large-scale commissions?

Blood Swept Lands… was a major scaling-up of anything I’ve done before, and I’ve learned so much about how to involve the audience. The project created a new community, with 25,000 people volunteering for free and flying in from around the world. The most moving aspect has been the army of volunteers who came to plant the poppies and the thousands of people who have photographed and responded to this living memorial.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London. Photo: © Richard Lea-Hair and Historic Royal Palaces

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