Story of the Derby artist who made the Tower of London's World War I ceramic poppies

By Ben Miller | 11 November 2014

Derby artist who created Tower of London's poppies says global popularity of World War I artwork has surprised him

A photo of a man smiling in front of an art installation involving red flowers on grassland
© Courtesy University of Derby
As the final poppy was laid at the sea of commemorative red surrounding the Tower of London today, it was the culmination of an installation which began in Derby’s Pride Park last February, when Paul Cummins, an award-winning ceramicist, began conspiring with fellow artists and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

YS Crawford Butler, one of the Tower's Yeoman Warders, planted the first of the ceramic poppies in July© Richard Lea-Hair / Historic Royal Palaces
Cummins handed the final crafted poppy to Harry Hayes, a 13-year-old army cadet who planted it at the Tower’s mighty moat. It meant the poppies, which have been visited by royalty and become perhaps the most high-profile artwork of the First World War Centenary year, numbered 888,246 – one for each British and Colonial fatality during the war.

“It’s turned from what I do to a public project with a lot of people involved within it,” said Cummins.

“It’s snowballed – I didn’t realise how much the general public would like it and be interested in the project.

“People have flown in from Scotland, Singapore and Vietnam just to prove that they’ve been here, to remember the people they have whose families have died. And that’s the bit I didn’t expect.

“It’s really a celebration of people’s lives and death, because it’s poignant. If you see a number of 888,000 it’s not really meaningful, but if you actually see the physicality of that many people, represented by something, you can realise how many people have died.”

The theatrical company’s designer, Tom Piper, helped envisage the work, as well as graduates from the university, where Cummins is pursuing his PhD having won awards during his degree in craft.

“I suffer from colour associated dyslexia, so I called on the Student Support team to help with extra support when I needed it,” he said, praising the institution while reflecting on his studies.

“I was an architectural model maker and was looking to change my career.

“The course covered a wide range of areas from ceramics to jewellery-making and it confirmed what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

“It helped pushed me and became my catalyst for change.”

The Tower installation, called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of It, was unveiled 100 years since the first full day of British involvement in the war, on August 5 2014. Tomorrow volunteers will begin to remove the ceramics, which include a section cascading out of the Tower’s window and The Wave, which rises over the causeway to enter the castle.

“It’s incredible to think this world-wide phenomenon began at Paul’s studio right here in Derby,” mused Vice-Chancellor Professor John Coyne, who said leaders at the university were “immensely proud” of Cummins.

“This has become one of the most famous art installations of all time. From visiting and planting some poppies myself, I know it really is breathtaking.”

The installation will tour Britain before being permanently installed at the Imperial War Museum sites in London and Manchester from 2018.

  • Poppies tour: Wave, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, September 2015 – January 2016; Woodhorn Museum, Northumberland, September – October 2015; St George’s Hall, Liverpool, November 2015 – January 2016

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Click on the picture to launch a gallery of the poppies

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Latest comment: >Make a comment
I think it is beautiful, fabulous and marvellous. Congratulations to Paul Cummins and all those involved and for the Tower of London for allowing it. What better place for such a sight.
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