Clay Culture: Blood Swept Lands

A British soldier walking among the nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies placed in the 16-acre Tower of London moat. The last poppy was placed on Armistice Day, November 11, 2014. Photo: Neil Hall, Reuters.

The monumental art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was created to mark the 100-year anniversary of the first full day of Britain’s involvement in World War I. It filled the Tower of London’s famous moat from July 17 to November 11, 2014. The project, conceived by English artist Paul Cummins and put together with the help of stage designer Tom Piper, consisted of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each individually created by a team of volunteers. Each poppy represented a British military fatality during the war.

The ceramic poppies cascaded in a symbolic outpouring, supported by a metal armature, out of a window of the Tower and into the now dry moat.

Cummins’ noted to BBC news, “I approached the Tower as the ideal setting as its strong military links seemed to resonate. The installation is transient, I found this poignant and reflective of human life, like those who lost their lives during the first World War. I wanted to find a fitting way to remember them.” According to BBC News, he came up with the idea of creating a sea of poppies two years ago, and pitched the idea to the Tower of London with the help of Piper. Cummins has experience working with historic buildings and over the last three years he has been commissioned to create large-scale installations for the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House, Royal Derby Hospital, Althorp Estate, and Blenheim Palace.


Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, with thousands of soldiers engaged in the bloodiest conflict the world had known until a truce was signed on November 11, 1918.

The Tower of London has traditionally been one of the city’s more foreboding landmarks, serving as a prison from 1100 until 1952. It was also where more than 1600 men swore an oath to the crown after enlisting for war. The tower was used as a military depot, as a ceremonial setting-off point for regiments who had been stationed there, and as the execution location for eleven German spies.

The poppy became known as a flower of remembrance because of those men who died fighting in the trenches in the poppy fields of Flanders. In the UK (and numerous other countries), artificial poppies are commonly worn on November 11, known as Armistice Day, which marks the anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Poppy Production

Each poppy was handmade and individually shaped by a team of local workers in Derby, England, making each flower unique.

Cummins spoke with the Rod McPhee of the Mirror in London,  about the poppy production: terra-cotta clay was cut into sections, rolled into large flat slabs, and cut with a metal stamp, similar to a large cookie cutter, into petal-shaped patterns (1). Two stamped pieces were then layered one on top of the other in opposing directions to form six overlapping petals (2).

1 Clay slabs were rolled by hand and cut into petal shapes with a metal stamp.

2 Petal shapes are placed on top of each other before they are crimped together.

3 Continuing to place petal shapes on top of each other.

Each petal was individually crimped and folded to create a three-dimensional flower (3–4), then placed on drying racks built from plywood sheets and bricks (5).

A bright red glaze was applied to the bisque-fired poppies before they were glaze fired (6). Following the firing, a two-foot-long metal stem was assembled and welded around each poppy (7).

4 The shapes coming together as the petals are placed on top of each other.

5 Poppies drying in single layers on makeshift shelving in Paul Cummins' Derby workshop before they were bisque fired. Approximately 7000 poppies were made each day.

6 A bright red glaze was applied to the bisque-fired poppies before they were returned to the kiln for the second and final firing.

7 Two-foot-long stems were welded to each ceramic poppy. Photo: Guy Channing.

Several metal armatures were built for the installation at another site in Plymouth, England (8). These cascading structures were built to flow out of the high tower windows, down the wall, and onto the grounds (9). A separate armature was built to continue the sea of poppies up and over the moat’s bridge.

The immense task of creating the ceramic poppies fell to a team of volunteers in a factory 130 miles away on an industrial estate in Derby. The production line ran for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, reported McPhee. A staff of 52 people worked overlapping shifts and produced over 7000 flowers a day in order to meet the six-figure target. The entire project spanned eleven months from the first poppy made in January of 2014 to when the last poppy was placed in the 16-acre moat on Armistice Day, November 11, 2014.

8 The metal armature, designed to swoop out the tower window, over walls, and along the ground was created in Plymouth, England, before being brought to London and installed. Photo: Brendan Cusak.

9 The finished installation included 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies.

Charity De-installation

After their removal, several thousand poppies went on tour before being permanently installed at the Imperial War Museums, in London and Manchester, England, reported BBC news. The remainder of the poppies were sold for £25 ($39) each, with 10 percent of the proceeds to benefit six different charities: the Confederation of Service Charities, Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion, and the SSAFA.

It took approximately 17,500 volunteers to plant the poppies and an entire second team of about 8000 volunteers to dismantle them. The poppies were removed throughout the daytime hours over the course of a couple of weeks. The window and bridge segments of the installation (those built on the armatures) were the last sections to be removed and remained on view until the end of November.

The Tower of London reported nearly five million visitors viewed the artwork. Huge demand from the public sparked a campaign to keep the installation in place for longer but Cummins said he never intended the installation to be permanent as it was meant to symbolize those who had come into our lives and were then so tragically take away.

Photos 1–6, 9: Historic Royal Palaces.

Subscriber Extras: Video

Watch a video of the installation here:—video


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