You might be forgiven, approaching the Tower from almost any direction, of perceiving its walls, moat, and series of buildings only through the throngs of visitors – historically, the Tower of London and large crowds go together like tea and scones.
The symbolism and the stories of the Tower, however, loom large in my mind, and as I walked across Tower Bridge a few weeks ago, I felt a visceral chill when I saw the profusion of poppies spread across the moat and seemingly pouring down the walls.
By now, everyone with internet access, I feel, has seen the photos of the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” exhibit installed at the Tower of London. Members of the Royal family were photographed walking amongst the poppies, and nearly every media outlet released some sort of piece about the exhibit.
In commemoration of the start of World War I, 888,246 ceramic poppies are being placed in the moat and also cascading from the walls of the Tower. The poppies, all hand-crafted and each unique, represent each death in the British forces in the First World War.
The installation was created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins. Stage designer Tom Piper helped shape the setting of the poppies – interpreting how the flowers would be placed (not in orderly rows – the carnage of that first modern war defied order and sense) and how the cascade of red would interact with the famous backdrop and the location.
The Tower of London, like the city around it, changed a great deal from the Norman period to the twentieth century. I won’t mention the abuse the Tower suffered at the hands of the Victorians in the 19th century as it moved from a working institution to monument. Although the draining of the moat in 1845 likely improved the air of the immediate area tremendously! The Tower reverted back to an active role during World War I, serving as military depot, recruitment center and training ground.
I’ve thought a great deal about World War I this year. In May, I found a small notebook kept by my paternal grandfather on his journey from America to England in 1918 – he eventually wound up in France. He died before I was born, so the sense of discovery created by his brief, matter-of-fact entries was immense. I connected with a man I had never known (http://fhandfag.blogspot.com/2014/05/cemeteries-stories-and-memory.html).
Connections – that is really the root of my fascination with historic buildings and landscapes. And the combination of an art exhibit with a powerful and iconic building, both imbued with messages about memory, power and despair, is so incredibly moving. The Tower of London, I feel, prods activity in any imagination, no matter how out of use it might be – the sheer scale of the White Tower – the execution of Anne Boleyn on Tower Green – the Princes in the Tower – if memory had substance, it would spill from the walls.
And, that, I think, is the beauty of the poppies. They represent the story of the Great War, but also all of the stories that never transpired. Will remembering the barbarity of war in this way influence today’s children to avoid wars and the resulting shattering of lives? I don’t know. My knowledge extends as far as my own experience, staring out over the moat, and crying in the morning sun.
The startling red shocks the eye, placed as the flowers are against the multitude and layers of stone – the starkness of the architecture softened, almost, by the curve of the petals. But even noticing the interplay of colors and textures, it is impossible for me to forget the lost generation that perished, and that each glinting ceramic flower stands for someone’s lover, father, son, brother. My grandfather was one of the lucky ones that came home. According to my father, he never talked about his time in France – his memories needed no exhibit to stay fresh and horrifying.
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com and on Twitter at @GerbBrother