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The Poppies Tour at Derby’s Silk Mill

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 August 2017

A constant stream of visitors viewed the poppies

A constant stream of visitors viewed the poppies

geoff ford

Geoff Ford reports on the arrival of the Poppies Tour in Derby

The poppies came home to DerbyThe poppies came home to Derby

Poppies: Weeping Window drew tens of thousands of visitors to view it over the seven weeks it was installed at Derby’s Silk Mill. The Weeping Window is one of two features retained from the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red sculpture of 888,246 poppies (one for each British and Colonial life lost in the First World War) created by Derby artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper at the Tower of London in 2014. The sale of the other poppies raised money for charity.

Many of the poppies were created at Paul’s studio in Derby, so how did he feel to see his iconic creation on display at the Silk Mill?

‘It’s slightly surreal, for me,’ he said, ‘because the exhibition found a home with everybody and these are the ones who haven’t found a home yet. They represent the un-named soldiers and the people who had nobody to claim them. That’s what these are like for me, the souls of the soldiers who had nobody. Because they are going to lie in Manchester and London at the end of all this, and it took a long time for people to have even a basic grave in the First World War if they weren’t claimed, for me that’s how I’m judging this. My work’s always transient and just goes. These are sort of permanent.

‘People didn’t need an explanation of what these were, that was the great thing about them, one flower for one life. Everyone claims them, which is good,’ he continued. ‘Now I feel like some crazy uncle! I’m really happy that they’ve come back here to Derby.’

Paul Cummins and Tom Piper inspect the poppy installationPaul Cummins and Tom Piper inspect the poppy installation

‘We are taking the installation to 19 places around the UK, which takes us to the end of the First World War centenary, November 2018,’ said Jenny Waldmann CBE, Director of 14-18 NOW which is organising the tour – one of many projects to bring the legacy of the First World War to life for new generations. ‘It’s going to so many places and it’s lovely to be able to bring out local and regional stories of the First World War. Of course, that war impacted all across the UK.

‘It’s been very emotional,’ she added. ‘It’s such a beautiful sculpture and it also brings up memories that are inter-generational – grandparents talking to grandchildren about their own memories of their parents. Nearly two and a half million people have seen it now, around the UK.

‘Paul Cummins was very keen for it to come back here and so many of the poppies were made here. It is wonderful to bring it back and that’s part of the local resonance of it here. Also, Derby Silk Mill played a role in the First World War, Rolls-Royce, too, as well as the soldiers who came from Derby and the people here who were impacted by war.’

Whilst the concept of Blood Swept Lands was Paul’s, designer Tom Piper was engaged to help create the finished sculpture because of his theatre background. ‘I was brought on board for the Tower of London because of the scale of the project,’ he said. ‘I looked at the way the installation engaged with the building, the Weeping Window and the Wave, and also the way that it was planted and the use of the volunteers. Since then, at every location we do a site visit and look at how the sculpture might best respond to it. The lovely thing about it is that the idea is fixed, coming from an aperture or window, but what it does thereafter can be developed and adapted for each location. Each one is unique and responds to the location.

The poppies swept to a pool where the mill race once flowedThe poppies swept to a pool where the mill race once flowed

‘Here we’re coming on the corner of the tower and because this used to be the mill race where we’re standing, the poppies teeter on the edge of the mill race which is highlighted by the paving stones. Also, a bit like the way that any liquid behaves, it is pouring down and where it hits another wall it splashes and rises up. It is a nice metaphor of the poppy, both as a plant and a blood-like thing.

‘It’s been extraordinary, really,’ Tom added. ‘It’s not what we expected when we started. The most amazing thing is that it has adapted to circumstances as it’s gone along. Initially we thought we’d plant the whole lot in three weeks at the Tower of London. That became a logistic impossibility, so we had to adapt our ideas. It became a long planting thing which created a momentum around it and allowed 20,000 volunteers to get involved.’

Tony Butler, Executive Director at Derby Museums, added: ‘The Silk Mill is the symbol of making in Derby. We have 300 years of manufacturing history in the city that the building exemplifies and making is a really important part of our city’s story. It’s fitting that the poppies that were made here have come back. We are very proud that the Silk Mill has been chosen as a venue.’

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