Blood Swept Lands - Issue 1 - Winter 2014 - University of Derby

Paul Cummins: the artist behind the Tower Poppies

Writer: Rosie Marshalsay

Amazing, evocative, humbling and breathtaking are just a handful of the words that have been used to describe 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas Of Red', the art installation of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies at the Tower of London.

The project, which marked the centenary of our WW1 fallen heroes, began in a Derby workshop last year and transformed the Tower of London. Millions of people watched in awe as the poppies encircled the iconic landmark, covering the moat with a vibrant cloak of red.

It would be easy for the man behind this stunning work of art to get swept up in the hype, or become starstruck by its A-list visitors – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry have all planted a poppy - but that's not his style (and it's not the first time he's met the young Royals either!).

Born in Chesterfield, Paul Cummins (37) has his roots firmly in Derbyshire. His love of art came at a young age; his mother Glenis fondly recalls the papier-mâché models of cats and dogs that used to adorn the kitchen table but she didn’t think he’d end up in this field of work, or enjoying the success that he has.

Paul had different ideas and after completing his studies he became an architectural model maker. When the time came to make a career change he attended an Open Day at the University of Derby and was sold on Blood the BA (Hons) Craft degree. Why? "Simple - it was the best in the country at the time. The course confirmed what I wanted to do for the rest of my life; it became my catalyst for change," explains Paul.

Did you know?

  • 20,000 volunteers, including a team from the University of Derby, came from all over the world to help plant an average of 70,000 poppies each week
  • One photograph, of the poppies cascading down the Tower, has received 5 billion Google hits!
  • The 888,246 poppies covered an area of 16 acres
  • The installation was created in partnership with acclaimed British theatre designer Tom Piper
  • Paul lost a finger on his right hand during the making of the poppies
  • The majority of the poppies were hand crafted in Paul’s studio based at Derby’s Pride Park
  • Thousands of the poppies are to tour the UK to enable more people to see parts of the artwork
  • Millions of pounds from the sale of the poppies have been raised for charity

He graduated in 2009 and since then has become one of the most recognised and celebrated ceramic artists of our time, creating large-scale installations for venues including the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House, Derby Royal Hospital, Blenheim Palace, and Parliament's Cromwell Green, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, his most recent project, was completed on Armistice Day (November 11), when the final poppy was planted.

The operation to take down the installation began on November 12, each poppy bought in aid of charity meticulously cleaned and placed in a commemorative box ready for shipping to its new owner – including 50 bound for the University.

When I caught up with Paul prior to November 11, I asked him how he thought he'd feel seeing the final poppy planted before work to take it down began. He remained surprisingly unfazed by the prospect: "None of my work is permanent; my installations have always been transient so I don't mind. I'll take a little time to reflect and then I'll be ready for the next project.

"I'm happy that it's happened and I was fortunate enough to have a great team working with me, but I've also been shocked at how many people have come to help plant the poppies, and to see them.

"This has turned into one massive world-wide community project; it's taken on a life of its own. Apparently every country in the world has got involved in some way – either through volunteering, tweeting, taking or viewing photos, reading about it or speaking about it to others. I thought the country would take it to their heart but not the whole world, it's quite amazing."

No one, least of all Paul, could have imagined the impact such a project would have on so many people, and how a piece of art designed to mark a significant part of history, would end up making history itself.

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