Gerry Hartland

Die Lorelei. An essay

The Rhine and die Lorelei

As a child I always had a fascination for the Rhine and its tributaries. I suppose being born and living in the river delta that is now called the Netherlands [the Low Countries] might have been a factor. I did not really know then that the country was just a river delta until I started to learn geography at school and then realised that my country was just a mud heap created by the Rhine with the mud carried all the way down from Switzerland.

The first time I saw the river was in 1948 when I went to Arnhem the city that had been extensively damaged in 1944 in the battle for the Rhine Bridge. I was sent there as a work experience student by the railway company to help out with the railway station’s building improvements. At that time of the year the river was semi flooded and at its most impressive. Although coming from North Holland and spending my youth beside a very sizeable canal I had never encountered anything as large as the Rhine in flood.

And it flowed so calmly

After this work-experience occasion I never visited Arnhem again but during our 2014 trip in Germany from Münster to Zürich we crisscrossed the river many times and visited the historic places along the way where Turner had taken his sketches worked up in the imaginary and romantic works of art that made him famous; places such as the Pfalz, Coblenz, Heidelberg, and Colmar. And so one day we went on our way armed with a copy of Turner’s watercolour to visit the famous Lorelei felsen the rock where Lorelei enticed the unweary traveller to wreck their boats on the hidden snags below the surface. It was not the easiest place to get to because of the roads, the traffic, and the noise, so we did not actually get to the view point Turner took for his painting.

It is a caravan park.

Actually the whole river is now a superhighway with huge barges and enormous cruise ships plying their way up and down from Schaffhausen to Rotterdam and with roads and railways hemming in the river on both sides leaving no space for Lorelei to perform her Siren song. A great disappointment for an old romanticist.

Below are some drawings and photos of what we encountered and found on the net.

1        The Heinrich Heine poem of die Lorelei, with an Aubrey Beardsley style drawing of the siren

2        I like this Lorelei best. She no longer sends sailors to their doom. Not drowning but waving as the ships go by. She is a super-sized Lorelei in the true German tradition.

3        The Turner version of the rock looking upstream from across the river. Highly romantic in the true Turner tradition. It bears little resemblance to the reality but still conveys the menace of the rock.

4        A page from Turner’s sketch book drawn on the site. One can just see the outline of the rock in its true proportion

5        This is as close to the viewpoint of Turner’s sketch as I could get. Not quite the way it was in 1871.

6 and 7       my watercolour sketches. I had several attempts at the subject but could not get it right. Not having seen the actual spot did not help either. No.7 is probably the better one.

8        A Turner watercolour of the rock looking downstream. I am not sure what the structure in the front is meant to be. A shipwreck? A fishing platform? A raft?  

9 & 10        Photos roughly from the same viewpoint as the Turner sketch.

11      My portrait version of the rock looking downstream. This is a watercolour sketch and probably one of my better ones.

12      A watercolour sketch close to the view point of no 10 There must be a bit of land sticking out as all painting show some version of the viewpoint

13, 14, 15.Historical paintings. There do not seem to be any contemporary works in the public domain; too much traffic and too much noise to go out there