Being based in Hackney, I should have been one of the first to view Paul Cummins’ Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, his installation of 888,246 poppies in the Tower of London’s moat, completed on 11 November 2014 — Remembrance Day in the year of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
But in the lead up to November 11th, I was too busy (I told myself) and, truthfully, a tiny bit deliberately detached, the more so for every day that the media hoopla grew with the crowds.
On 20 November, finally, I cycled down to the Tower. I arrived amidst the piercing low sunshine characteristic of autumn, which generated a hazy atmosphere down into the shadowy recess of the eastern moat.
In the misty gloom small clusters of volunteers bent over and picked up the poppies one by one, laying them gently in wheelbarrows and large cardboard crates. Above were hundreds of spectators folding themselves over the bright blue rail that leads up to Tower Bridge, looking down.
I had an instant, unforced reaction. It concerned the way the volunteers below were wrapped in thick coats and gloves, and the tenderness and care with which they picked up each poppy. It reminded me of English figurative artist Stanley Spencer’s paintings of rounded, even blobby adult figures whose outward physical appearance was distorted to the impulsion of an inner, emotional vision.
Funny thing is, Spencer’s paintings — such as Parents Resurrecting or Villagers and Saints, both from 1933 — have nothing to do with the war, even though Spencer served in Macedonia and later painted war scenes.
Truth be told, not all of his blobby paintings are even very attractive. By the thirties, Spencer’s colour palate has become thin and brown, and Spencer’s personal life was a wreck. He spent the thirties chasing an adulterous affair with a lesbian who, naturally, never returned his affections. His finances and his paintings tell the strain.
And yet, the simple (but certainly not straightforward) emotion of village square love in Spencer’s vision was, I felt, in some sense present right here at the Tower. It was as if the normal rules had been suspended. Even the VAT on the sale of the ceramic poppies (all sold, by the way) has been waived by the government.
Some of the volunteers waved at a news helicopter hovering over the Tower.
As I walked to Traitor’s Gate, I noted that the poppies were not all the same, and some had been delicately placed on their own in recesses, away from the main field. Each and every poppy unique. I hadn’t realised that, even as I had taken in the point that there was a poppy for each and every one of the 888,246 Britons killed in the war.
Neither had I realised that people have been throwing bright, shiny coins down into the moat. En masse, they caught the available light and glinted back.
Later on the same day, I cycled across London to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Constable exhibition.
Arriving there to be told it was sold out, I found myself instead in the sculpture gallery looking at a relief from 1930 celebrating sexual love in defiance of English conventional morality, the product of an upper-class ménage a trois. In the fire grate accompanying the relief, which decorated a living room, there are snarling cats, and in the relief itself a snarling village woman spilling her tea.
It’s taken further reflection to put these elements together in my head: the taking down of the poppies, the snarling cat relief of the 1930s and how both represented the need to redefine human relations amidst shock and grief. Both elements define Spencer’s work.
Culturally, the inter-war years were like a giant Pietà. The real pain of the Great War only began when the war ended, the point at which people had to make the transition from fighting it to weighing its meaning.
The most powerful and least commented aspect of Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red was in its dismantling, which I was fortunate to witness.
The long-drawn-out cultural atmosphere that followed November 1918 — I mean the mordant atmosphere of Auden, the scrubby disillusion of Eliot, and finally these odd experiments in personal morality that long predated the Sixties and were not exactly jubilant — indicated then, as now, that the Great War changed everything. It’s the great, insurmountable fact of the twentieth century and we’re all in the shadowy moat that it created, even as the sun shines too.
All images by Richard Lofthouse.