We know we’re supposed to be completely impartial when it comes to our own awards, but we couldn’t help but let out a small whoop of delight when Johnson Tiles scooped last December’s Mixology North Readers’ Choice award for its fantastic part in what has to be the most remarkable art installation this country has witnessed in a generation.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, marked one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper – who both received MBEs for their work in the New Year’s Honours – an astonishing 888,246 ceramic poppies progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat between 17 July and 11 November 2014. Each poppy represented a British military fatality during the war.
The poppies encircled the iconic landmark, creating not only a spectacular display visible from all around the Tower but also a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation was intended to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary and create a powerful visual commemoration.
All of the poppies that made up the installation were sold, raising millions of pounds, which were shared equally amongst six service charities.
Our friends from Johnson Tiles was brought in to ensure the Tower’s iconic moat flowed with poppies in time for November 11, recruiting a specialist team of ceramic artists to make around half of the flowers. The team was able to get a closer look at the installation in situ after being invited down to London, before the process to remove the poppies got underway.
Johnson Tiles, which has been manufacturing ceramics in the Potteries for more than 100 years, recruited a team of specialist ceramic artists to work on the project from July, individually making and decorating each poppy by hand. Around 8,000 poppies a day were made by the team at the factory in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, for the installation, in a labour intensive process involving a very traditional, skilled method of making.
Harry Foster, Specialist Products Manager at Johnson Tiles, said: ‘Standing in the moat on the morning of the 11th whilst the last roll of honour was being read out, the magnitude of what had been achieved began to set in, along with the emotion and a realisation of the sheer scale of the loss, it had admittedly become impossible to hold back the tears. The nod of acknowledgement from a similarly tearful Paul Cummins confirmed that it was mission accomplished, and that we could now rest easy in the knowledge that we had succeeded in our efforts to deliver a fitting tribute to the sacrifice made during the conflict.
‘I am sure that I speak for all the team at Johnson Tiles when I say we cannot begin to describe our immense sense of pride and accomplishment, to have played such a significant role in this magnificent installation that has endeared itself to our nation.’
The manufacture of each poppy began with processing clay to produce slabs. Flower templates were then cut from the slabs, with the two layers formed into the poppy shape. Each poppy was dried for a minimum of six hours in a cabinet dryer, which reduced the moisture content enough to fire them in the kiln. The poppies were ‘biscuit fired’ and then hand-dipped and re-fired to high temperature before being dispatched to Paul Cummins’ studio in Derby, where they were hand-finished and sent to the Tower of London.
Receiving an estimated five million visitors since the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation was officially unveiled by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the summer, the poppies are believed to have raised in excess of £1.2m for each of the six service charities involved.