Imagine a river of red, winding its way round the bottom of an old, iconic stone building. On closer inspection, the illusion of a river is actually an enormous cluster of individual ceramic poppies planted in the moat of the Tower of London.
Once complete, there will be 888,246 poppies, each one representation of a British or Commonwealth life lost in the First World War. The installation (created by artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper) is a moving tribute to WW1, despite the crowds of onlookers determined to get a better version of the photograph being taken by the stranger next to them.
At Tower Bridge, there is the usual buzz of tourists and joggers and traffic making their way from one side to the other. At the Tower of London where the poppies begin, the feeling is much the same – groups of people enjoying the majestic Tower Bridge, the view of The Thames and the ‘small’ amount of poppies on the south side of the Tower. The atmosphere intensifies at the north side: hundreds, if not thousands, of people look out over the railings, their view of the poppies improved by the higher ground. Their faces alternate from being fixed in concentration behind clicking cameras, to being completely in awe of what lies before them.
The Tower Poppies have that effect. On first look, they project the ‘wow’ factor. The modern instinct is to take a photo on your phone and share it with the online world – they are a sight to behold and to document, whether in broadsheets or on Instagram. After a few minutes though, you start to understand that there are more to the poppies than meets the eye. You look at the sea of red, how glorious the colour looks against the ancient stone and the autumn London sky, and – for some reason – you start to see the poppies individually. The petals, the shine, the slightly different shades of red. And it hits you: that poppy was a man who died for his country. You look again, and instead of seeing a sea of red, you see a sea of human life lost.
Once the poppies are gone, Tower Bridge will seem very empty, giving us an idea of how it must have felt when each of those men didn’t come home from war. The installation is a bleak but beautiful reminder of what they and their families gave for their country.
You can give a donation or find out more about the extension and UK tour of the poppies on the website at www.poppies.hrp.org.uk.
Photographs: Kris Miller
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