For fans of Led Zeppelin, there is a familiar image that is instantly recognizable: a grey-bearded man bent over, with weathered hands holding a pole that supports a bundle of hazel on his back.
However, the source of the photo featured on the striking front cover of Led Zeppelin IV has remained unknown for over fifty years.
New information has surfaced that the photo is a black and white image from the late Victorian era, featuring a thatcher from Wiltshire.
Brian Edwards, a visiting researcher at the regional history center at the University of the West of England, discovered the image in a photo album while conducting ongoing research related to an exhibition he organized with the Wiltshire Museum in 2021.
Edwards conducted a study in which he observed common sources that encourage people to connect with the history of Wiltshire. These sources included paintings, photographs, artifacts, and personal memories. It was during his investigation into early photos of Stonehenge that he discovered the one that became well-known thanks to the English rock band.
Edwards expressed his hope that the discovery of this Victorian photograph would please and entertain Robert, Jimmy, and John Paul, as Led Zeppelin’s soundtrack has been a part of his life since his teenage years.
52 years ago, on November 8th, 1971, Led Zeppelin IV was released. It has sold over 37 million copies globally and features one of the band’s most beloved tracks, Stairway to Heaven.
The cover of the album did not include the band’s name or a title. Instead, it featured a colored image of a stooped man, resembling a painting, that was placed on the internal wall of a partially demolished house in the suburbs. The back cover of the album showed a block of flats, believed to be Salisbury Tower in Ladywood, Birmingham.
Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, found a framed, colored photo of the original Wiltshire thatcher image at an antique shop close to guitarist Jimmy Page’s residence in Pangbourne, Berkshire.
The initial photo was found in a Victorian album called “Memories of a Trip to Shaftesbury. Whitsuntide 1892. A gift to Auntie from Ernest.” It featured over 100 images of buildings and city views, as well as some pictures of country laborers from Wiltshire, Dorset, and Somerset.
The photographer captioned the picture of the hunched man as “A Wiltshire thatcher.” Additional investigation reveals that the subject is likely Lot Long (also known as Longyear), who was born in Mere in 1823 and passed away in 1893. At the moment the photo was captured, Long was a widower residing in a modest home on Shaftesbury Road in Mere.
At this time, a portion of the signature resembles the writing found in the album and implies that the photographer is Ernest Howard Farmer (1856-1944), who was the initial leader of the photography program at what was then known as Regent Street Polytechnic. This institution is now part of the University of Westminster.
The photo taken by the farmer is currently displayed at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. It will also be included in an upcoming exhibition showcasing photos from the Victorian era in the western region of England, to be held at the museum in the spring of 2024.
David Dawson, the director of Wiltshire Museum, said: “The ‘Wiltshire Thatcher: a photographic journey through Victorian Wessex’ exhibition will celebrate the work of Ernest Farmer, who today is little known but was a leading figure in the development of photography as an art form.
“Through the exhibition, we will show how Farmer captured the spirit of people, villages and landscapes of Wiltshire and Dorset that were so much of a contrast to his life in London. It is fascinating to see how this theme of rural and urban contrasts was developed by Led Zeppelin and became the focus for this iconic album cover 70 years later.”