This is the week of the poppy; the hugely symbolic flower I’ve been reflecting on since early September.
It all began when I went down to see the Henry Moore, but not the large abstract sculpture in front of Toronto’s city hall that Murray McLauchlan sang of in his big hit of 1975.
The Moore works I’m referring to are in the natural setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) in the north of England. Moore was committed to having his work placed in the open air and there’s no finer place, particularly as it’s only miles from where he grew up. It’s one of my favourite places I visit whenever I’m seeing family nearby.
Opened in 1977, the YSP can’t quite be described as a garden, yet it has many of the elements. It’s set in the softly undulating countryside of the old Bretton Estate, designed and planted in the 18th century by landscape gardener Richard Woods, a contemporary of Capability Brown. Though lacking the endless perennial borders and formal flowerbeds of many public gardens, with two lakes, a rich variety of exotic trees, follies, and magnificent vistas; it’s far more than a garden. Complementing the pastoral scene are a number of Moore’s works with many others by leading artists of the 20th century.
Sculptures and statuary have been used to elevate the sometimes prosaic nature of gardens since the earliest times. They were set on pedestals to be gazed at in awe, but at the YSP the perfect marriage of landscape and art has been achieved and now welcomes over 400,000 visitors each year. It is described as a place that challenges, inspires, informs and delights. And it also fills visitors with awe.
Such was the case during my recent visit in early September. I arrived on a cool, misty morning to find the parking lot already filling up. It was then I recalled local media references to a new installation in the park. It was only the third day since opening and crowds were arriving early to experience something they likely didn’t have the opportunity to see the previous year, the iconic poppy sculpture Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.
The breathtaking display of 888,246 ceramic poppies that flowed from the Tower of London and poured into the grassy moat below was created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper in 2014 to mark the centenary of the First World War. Each poppy represented a British military fatality of the war.
The installation, in place between July and November, 2015, attracted over four million people with even greater numbers wishing they could have seen it. Afterwards, many of the ceramic poppies were sold, with money going to charity, but it was decided that three large sections of the display would go on display at other locations in Britain — at Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, St George’s Hall, Liverpool, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Almost serendipitously, I was fortunately present to see the one that made it to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Like other visitors, I hadn’t seen the original installation in person, but even with just 10,000 poppies, the one before me was both moving and awe inspiring. Named Wave, it is an arch of bright red poppy heads suspended on tall stalks flowing from a bridge at the head of the lake. It descends into the water below, to me somehow symbolic of the mud and water of Flanders Fields.
As rain began to fall, increasing the sense of poignancy I experienced while standing on the bridge, I thought of the lives lost in that senseless war, and remembered the grandfather I never knew. All represented before me in a masterful work of art — in a garden.