Poppies

Many people will have been wearing poppies lately and on Remembrance Sunday they are at the heart of our commemorations. At Leeds Museums & Galleries we are working hard on a programme of commemoration for 2014-18, but until then here is a quick look at some of the historical poppies in our collections

The poppy has a long cultural history.
Beginning with the botanical, we have several different poppies in our herbarium collections. This one was gathered from allotments at the back of Newlaithes Gardens in Horsforth in 1959. The petals are still so red!
 

Moving back in time, our oldest object that features a poppy is this lekythos (jug) from the late Bronze Age in Cyprus. The ‘belly’ of the jug is meant to look like the seed-head of the poppy – there are groves that mimic the seed-head. It is very small so may have been used to prepare sleeping draughts from raw poppies, with the shape echoing the ingredients.
Moving forward to Ancient Rome, this dupondius (coin) dates from 41 AD and shows the goddess Ceres sitting, holding two poppies in her out-strectched right hand. Ceres is the goddess of the harvest and the poppy is one of her emblems, because they grew commonly in amongst fields of grains, like barley. Even with industrialised agriculture today, you can still see poppies growing amongst wheat around harvest time.
In Victorian England, poppies become a popular motif for a wide variety of objects, including textiles and porcelain. Popularity at this point had much to do with the influx of new varieties of poppy that were developed by Victorian horticulutralists. Victorians also popularised the idea of a ‘Language of Flowers’ and that each one had its own meanings. 
  • Poppies in general referred to: Eternal Sleep, Oblivion, Imagination
  • Red Poppy: Pleasure
  • White Poppy: Consolation
  • Yellow Poppy: Wealth, Success
This tea service dates from 1880 and features red poppies across it – it’s always possible some poppy-seed cake was served from it too!
After the First World War, many people noticed that battlefields in France were covered with poppies – they do grow well in disturbed ground. However it was the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ that appeared to make the use of them in remembrance so widespread. This cross dates to just after the First World War. It is an unprovenanced item – so we don’t know how it came to be in the collections – however I think that makes it all the more poignant.
If you have a story to share, or would like to get in touch about our First World War programme, please contact lucy.moore@leeds.gov.uk

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