Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth studio album, Led Zeppelin IV, became an instant classic upon its release in 1971. Despite being one of his most popular rock albums of all time, its jacket art remained shrouded in mystery for a long time. It depicts a framed portrait of a man on a wall of decaying wallpaper, often seen in record stores, on his T-shirts, and in articles in music magazines. However, little was known about the impressive work that graced the cover.
Brian Edwards, a historian at the University of the West of England, discovered the original copy of the image while browsing the auction house's press release. By sheer luck, Edwards discovered the famous image in a Victorian photo album. As a longtime fan of the band, the historian immediately recognised the image. "Led Zeppelin created a soundtrack that has been with me since I was a teenager, so the discovery of this Victorian photo was a great addition to Robert (Plant), Jimmy (Page), John Paul (Jones) and I sincerely hope that it will please and entertain people,” Edwards said.
While working on the album, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant purchased a photograph of an old man carrying a bundle of sticks at an antique shop in Reading, Berkshire. Due to its unique colouring, this famous image was initially thought to be an oil painting. It turned out to be a black-and-white photograph from the 19th century. The mysterious man in the portrait is Lot Long (or Longyear), a 69-year-old roofer born in 1823 in the town of Mere, Wiltshire. When this photo was taken in 1892, he was a widow and living in a small cabin.
The now iconic image was taken by Ernest Howard Farmer, who is considered a pioneer in the development of photography as an art form in late 19th century Britain. The photo album says: "Memories of a visit to Shaftesbury. Pentecost 1892. A gift from Ernest to my aunt." Features a font that matches the photographer's font. The album also includes images of local architecture, street scenes, and portraits of other farm workers. After the discovery, Edwards contacted Wiltshire Museum and purchased the album for £420 (approximately $515). To celebrate, the museum will be holding a special exhibition next year featuring images from the album called Wiltshire Thatcher – A Photographic Journey Through Victorian Wessex.
“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,” says the museum in a statement. While the whereabouts of the original image bought by Plant is unknown, this discovery has reignited both the interest in Farmer's work and the legacy of Led Zeppelin. The museum adds, “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.”