Ah ceramic poppies, you never fail to disappoint. I last saw them in Weeping Window at St George’s Hall in Liverpool in December 2015 where they cascaded from the windows of the neo-classical monolith, a vivid splash of red against it.
Now as Wave, they are at Old Trafford’s Imperial War Museum North, bobbing in the breeze and framed by the modern slate façade. The shark tooth-shaped roof of IWMN dominates the landscape on this side of the River Irwell, with MediaCityUK and The Lowry opposite.
It was a cold Friday morning at the launch, the rain hadn’t stopped drizzling and a strong breeze blasted over the Irwell giving a distinctive chill. But they were mesmerising and stopped passers-by in their tracks. The thousands of poppies planted at different heights are hyper-real. I was in awe of their beauty. And when the autumn sun came out and the light glinted on them: just wow.
It’s the last hurrah on their tour and they are there until November 25. The location is poignant as it coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. A book accompanies the poppies. Called Poppies Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, it has a foreword by Prince William and an array of striking images of the installation.
It’s been an amazing tour. The very first poppy was ‘planted’ four years ago at the Tower of London and they grew to 888,246 – each representing every British and Colonial life lost during the front in World War One. A lot of the poppies have been sold. My in-laws bought one and have it displayed in a wooden case. They’ve gone around the world and some pictured in the book are from the Cayman Islands, the Falklands and New Zealand.
At the Tower of London, Weeping Window cascaded down Legge’s Mount, the last remaining medieval battlement. The most pleasing views came from the top of the Shard or the top of a double decker bus that stopped outside the Tower. They’ve toured the nation – visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, Hull Maritime Museum and Carlisle Castle in the North before arriving in Trafford.
Designer Tom Piper said he had no idea “how epic it would be” and it was “quite beyond the scale of anything I imagined or have done before”. The project became multi-layered and multi-stranded. As I chat to Piper, he points out how the different light has an impact on the installation. “What I love about them is how they catch the light in the rain. And here at the IWM North they are against the slate of the landscape.
He’d previously visited the building several times and found it to be “inspiring and challenging – it is bold and does not make compromises”. It was important, for the poppies’ final visit, to be at “such a building, such a location”.
He says: “The building invites people to think about conflict and death and it is apt that it is their final location. They have had a huge impact culturally and to the economy of the places they’ve visited.”
Diane Lees, director general of IWM, says what is extraordinary is the number of people who’ve engaged with the poppies – 4 million people have seen them at various places. She describes the location in Trafford as “their final hurrah”.
There was concern, at the beginning of the World War One anniversary, that the public wouldn’t engage with the installation for four years and that they would lose interest, she says. But this clearly has not happened.
Lees believes that they have played “an invaluable role in connecting the public with a conflict that has now passed out of living memory”.
In Manchester, there’s the Lancashire Pals and the battalions where the anniversary will resonate with families and descendants. “It seemed the right place for it to end for them to come home.”
In these uncertain times, it is more poignant and apt than ever to visit Wave on its final swansong and reflect on the sacrifices of our ancestors to defeat fascism.
(Main image: Poppies: Wave outside IWM North by Artist Paul Cummins and Designer Tom Piper. Photographed September 7, 2018)
Wave is at Imperial War Museum North until November 25, 2018. Entrance is free. At the end of the tour, they will become part of the Imperial War Museums’ collection.
Poppies Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was published this month in hardback and costs £25.