Tuesday’s Terrace, Barcelona

J. McGrath, sketch, Plinth et al.

Like a light at the end of the tunnel, this weeks Tuesday’s Terrace leads our eyes towards Plaza Real in Barcelona, Spain. This colored pencil sketch, with its sun drenched palms,  gives us hope that spring and warmth is just around the corner. A much needed perspective. – James

a tête-à-tête

Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden
Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden

 Mr. Eric,

As I sit at my desk and write this to you, the Narcissus ‘Tete-a-tete’ that I have planted on my terrace are now fiercely glowing silhouettes, brightly backlit by the sun that is also shining warmly on my face.  The smiling sun is a nice change from the cooler temperatures and gray days and from this late winter flu I have been entertaining these days.  Spring is almost here, I can almost smell it hence this cold, but the last day of winter is officially March 19th, so we are just about out of the woods.  From the windows, I can see the leaf buds of Platanus x hispanica swelling up and pulling away from the branches, just about ready to open.


I haven’t been outside much the past few days but besides getting enough rest and drinking plenty of teas I have surrounded myself with multiple vases of these little striking yellow blooms to make myself feel better, a little extra sunshine inside. Who wouldn’t smile because of that?! Most everybody loves the Narcissus, for their own reasons, but for many it heralds the triumphant return of spring and an end to the long, cold months of winter.  But why else do we love it and what is it about them? Is it the piercing yellow color that demands the attention of our eyes in an otherwise still drab landscape? The color alone,  reminiscent of the sun,  invokes an uplifting feeling of happiness  and cheerfulness. Is it maybe because the rest of bloom parade is not far behind in the marching procession of blossoms known as spring? So while admiring them from my reclined position, the stories and symbolism of Narcissus started playing out in my medicated head….

Narcissus 'Fortune'


The Narcissus has been a subject for writers and artists for more than 20 centuries, often-symbolizing rebirth, new beginnings and  representing luck and prosperity. Could that be the reference in the cultivar Narcissus ‘Fortune’ as seen above? Giving daffodils as a bouquet  is said to ensure happiness to the receiver but remember to  always present them in a bunch  because though the cheerful flower is associated with good fortune it might forebode misfortune if given as a single boom.  Could this be why they are sold in florist shops in bunches rather than single blooms as other flowers?

Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter
Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter

There is one story about Narcissus and Echo that I love. I owe my introduction and love for Greek Mythology to  Edith Hamilton, when I purchased her book, Mythology, while doing research for a school report as a young kid.  I still have that same book packed away in New York, and escaped through all of the images those stories painted in my mind. But, yes, the story back to the story….

 Narcissus was a young man of immense beauty who broke the hearts of many lovers along the way, lastly in his mortal life was the wood nymph Echo. Narcissus not paying attention to anyone else and constantly looking at his own reflection in a pool of water, falls in love with himself, thinking of no one else. This is how he spends his time, leaning continuously over the pool and gazing, until he discovered he could not embrace his reflection and soon enough he fell into the water and drowned, with the gods immortalizing him as the narcissus. The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, is a sad one where the flower symbolizes self-esteem and vanity.

Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor
Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor

There is a wonderful poem to read of this story, written by the American poet Fred Chappell

Narcissus and Echo, a poem

by Fred Chappell

Shall the water not remember  Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above  of
its mirror my half-imaginary  airy
portrait? My only belonging  longing;
is my beauty, which I take  ache
away and then return, as love  of
teasing playfully the one being  unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure  Is your
moves me. I live apart  heart
from myself, yet cannot  not
live apart. In the water’s tone,  stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower  Hour,
whispers my name with such slight  light:
moment, it seems filament of air,  fare
the world becomes cloudswell.  well.

bouquet sketcbouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile,bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath
bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath

The meaning and symbolism behind this flower has inspired many writers to artists and will continue to do so for a long time to come.  In Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers –  it is listed twice, once by the common name daffodil where it means regard and in its latin form Narcissus we see it listed as egotism. You choose.   Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, John William Waterhouse, and Poussin, among countless others have been inspired when putting brush to canvas,  using the the subject and the stories behind it as their muse.

display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens
display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens

The blooms are out in full force here in Madrid, and hope they are not too far behind for you in Pennsylvania, spring will be banging on your front door    soon enough.   By the way, did you know that ‘tete-a-tete’ means a face-to-face meeting, or a private conversation between two people?  It’s been nice chatting with you and I hope  these images and stories find you well and smiling……      -James


Into the Unknown

Bow-tie Gentleman- InkSelf Portrait- James McGrath

The desire to be productive and create is always there and to not do either would be to suffocate. As an artist, it’s always easiest to draw or paint what is in front of my face, given that there was never any other way for me. Feeling the need to push myself out of my comfort zone I sometimes do an exercise of sketching quickly, moving my hand before my mind can decide where to place my pen. By letting the brain flow free and creating marks on paper I take my drawings to some very interesting places and some of my stronger drawings have appeared this way, with each of these being finished under two minutes.

Casa de Campo, Madrid

Life is no different, and there are times where the unknown can be daunting and exciting, forging a new perspective that pushes you forward creatively, sparking new experiences. Soon I will be pushing myself out of my comfort zone again..  In the past year I have often traveled to Madrid, getting to know the city and its beauty, because in a few months it will be my new home and Spain is a country I have always loved for many reasons.  A recent visit took me on a cable car ride above Casa de Campo,  situated just behind the Royal Palace and the largest park west of Central Madrid. Spreading out across 4,200 acres, it used to be royal hunting grounds.

Casa de Campo wildflowers

I didn’t know where I was going once I boarded and what I was going to see on this ride but was relieved at what I found. When I think of Madrid,  it is not usually gardens and plants that comes to mind.  The past has seen me working in display gardens, botanical gardens, urban gardens in NYC and London, and as a kitchen gardener, but what does a gardener do in Spain?! The views that unfolded from above were completely unexpected, with meadows of wildflowers in brilliant bloom stretching out before my eyes, dancing across the landscape and even lighting up the dark shadows created by the Stone Pine, Pinus pinea.

Casa de Campo, Madrid

It was a relief to witness such a wonderful floral display easily rivaling the paintings that hang in the city’s rich collections.

Casa de Campo, Madrid

The brilliant yellow hues soon mingled with regal purples, showing the intensity of color that Echium vulgare can possess adding more depth to the landscape.

Echium vulgare Casa de Campo, Madrid

I could imagine the Impressionists having a field day surrounded by such light, textures and shadows, and it got me excited, very excited.  The flora presented itself to me in the way a canvas presents a painting, filling my mind and thoughts with brilliant emotion, making me hungry for more.

 Casa de Campo, Madrid

It will be tough leaving the beauty of the green English countryside but Spain has its wonders to share. I have only glanced down into the colorful kaleidoscope for a short while, but it made my head spin. Realizing the unknown will be exciting and there is a whole new palette of plants to explore and get excited about.

James McGrath - UntitledJames McGrath Flapper Girl

And as my pen dances across the paper quickly, I know where I am going, I am going forward into the unknown, excited,  and that is always the best way possible..