Album covers often carry their own mystique, serving as visual gateways to the sonic landscapes etched into the vinyl they protect. None perhaps more so than the enigmatic artwork gracing Led Zeppelin's fourth, untitled album, colloquially known as Led Zeppelin IV. For decades, the identity of the stoic, elderly figure on its cover has stirred the curiosity of fans and art aficionados alike. Now, thanks to the sharp eyes and historical sleuthing of one Brian Edwards, that mystery has been laid to rest.
Edwards, a local historian and a fellow at the University of the West of England’s regional history centre, uncovered the truth behind the face—a Victorian thatcher from Wiltshire named Lot Long. This revelation emerged from a Victorian photo album titled ‘Reminiscences of a visit to Shaftesbury. Whitsuntide 1892,’ which featured an array of images captured by pioneering photographer Ernest Howard Farmer1.
The discovery was made when Edwards spotted a familiar face in a photograph while curating an exhibition at the Wiltshire Museum. His memory, tinted by the hues of rock fandom from his teenage years, recognized the man in the photo as the same figure that adorned the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. This album, which houses classics like “Stairway to Heaven,” had its artwork chosen by none other than Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant, who stumbled upon the portrait in an antique shop2.
The story goes beyond the unearthing of a name. It's the tale of a photograph, taken in the latter days of the 19th century, which traversed time to become an emblem of 20th-century rock 'n' roll. It ties together the thread of Victorian life in rural England with the psychedelic tapestry of the '70s. The photograph's journey, from a Wiltshire village to a Reading antique shop, and finally to the cover of one of the most celebrated albums in rock history, is as serendipitous as it is remarkable.
What we witness here is the fascinating intersection of art, music, and history. An image intended to preserve the ordinary visage of a rural worker has transcended its original purpose, contributing to the iconography of a musical movement. This spring of 2024, the Wiltshire Museum will host an exhibition featuring the original photograph among Farmer’s extensive work, inviting us to step into the visual echoes of the past that continue to resonate in our cultural consciousness12.
Intriguing, isn't it? How a single, sepia-toned snapshot can ripple through time, linking the disparate dots of a thatcher's life, a rock band's legacy, and our endless fascination with the stories behind the art that moves us. The album cover, once a puzzle, now becomes a profound reminder of the enduring impact of visual art, its ability to cross generational divides, and how, sometimes, history is hidden in plain sight, waiting for a keen eye to reveal its secrets.