Tower of London’s poppy installation creates national sensation

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II walks through a field of ceramic poppies at The Tower of London.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II walks through a field of ceramic poppies at The Tower of London.

Standing in the Tower of London moat alongside three generations of his family, David Woodrow stared out at a sea of red ceramic poppies and struggled to hold back the tears.

The poppy exhibition at the Tower of London has become a national sensation, with some 4 million people expected to have seen it by the time the last of the 888,246 poppies — one for every Commonwealth soldier who died in the World War I — is planted on Nov. 11, the day the war ended in 1918. The throngs of onlookers were so thick this past weekend that organizers asked visitors to postpone their trip.

While the Great War is not on the minds of many Americans, here it remains profoundly relevant. The government has pledged $80 million for four years of events to commemorate the centenary. There have already been numerous official and non-official events — new books, plays, museum exhibitions, a massive “lights out” event — but the popularity of the “Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red” poppy installation stands out.

Since its royal opening in August, the installation has become a must-see on the tourist trail. At any given hour — the artwork is floodlit at night — onlookers are pressed against the black iron railings at the Tower of London peering down at the moat, many pausing in reflective silence before snapping photos: one of the most arresting images is of the “Weeping Window,” where poppies cascade out of a Yeoman Warder’s window, spilling out onto the moat like an ever-expanding river of blood.

The Internet is flooded with photos of the installation, with thousands of people uploading pictures to Twitter — like actress Joan Collins did on Wednesday — and dedicated Facebook pages like a “Tower of London Poppy Pictures and Selfies” page.

Adding to the spectacle, every day at dusk a speaker stands in the middle of the poppies and reads the names of 180 soldiers who died, followed by a cavalry trumpet call.

More than 18,000 people have volunteered to plant the poppies, including Woodrow, 78, a retired printer from Norwich who on a recent drizzly day planted poppies for four hours.

“My cousin, who was killed in the First World War, was the same age as my grandson is now — that’s significant to me,” said Woodrow, who was wearing gardening gloves and pushing a metal stalk into the muddy ground.

Not everyone has praised the artwork. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the Guardian, last week called it “a deeply aestheticized, prettified and toothless war memorial.” He argued that a more appropriate memorial to mark the “horror” of war would be filling the moat with barbed wire and bones.

The following day, the British Prime Minister David Cameron stepped into the fray, telling the House of Commons that it was “a stunning display,” and “extremely poignant.”

What people do seem to agree on is that the commemoration is strikingly original, capitalizing on the particularly British knack for performance and pageantry.

 
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