Two years ago as I began the research for the E.A.S.T. World War One exhibition, which would later be called Between the Lines, I bought a poppy. After Remembrance Day that year I put the poppy on the wall in my workroom and used it as a motive for the designs on the first few pages of my sketchbook. I knew the poem In Flanders Fields by the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae but had to search for information about how the poppy became a symbol of Armistice Day.
An American academic, Moina Michael, was so inspired by the poem that she made poppies from red silk which were brought to England by a French woman, Anne Guerin. In 1921, when the (Royal) British Legion was formed, 9 million poppies were sold, raising £106,000. At first the poppies were made from silk or paper and a price was set for them but in 1922 a factory was opened in the Old Kent Road, London, where disabled servicemen made the paper poppy with four petals and a leaf which is common today and donations were invited for each one.
This year, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the moat of the Tower of London has been filled with handmade ceramic poppies forming the installation by the artist Paul Cummins, Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red. I visited the Tower in the middle of October and watched as volunteers “planted” poppies in the moat by Traitor’s Gate. Paul Cummins said “It’s not really my project any more. It’s everybody’s”. When you equate each poppy with one British and Commonwealth soldier and then think of men from other parts of the world who also never returned, it is quite a sobering experience. The last of the 888,246 poppies will be planted tomorrow, 11th November.
n.b. The poppy I bought in 2012 is on the final page of my sketchbook.