On November 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin released an album that would later become known as “Led Zeppelin IV” due to its lack of a formal title. The iconic cover of this album featured an enigmatic image, depicting an elderly bearded man carrying a substantial bundle of sticks against the backdrop of a weathered wall. For over half a century, the identity of this solitary figure remained a mystery. Precisely 52 years later, on the same date, a minor enigma regarding this famous album cover has finally been unraveled.
Many believed the image to be a painting, but recent revelations indicate that it was, in fact, a late-Victorian black-and-white photograph of a thatcher from Wiltshire, a rural county in southwestern England. This discovery was made by Brian Edwards, a visiting research fellow affiliated with the Regional History Center at the University of the West of England. He stumbled upon this photographic gem while conducting ongoing research, stemming from an exhibition he curated with the Wiltshire Museum in 2021.
The original photograph was found within a Victorian album titled “Reminiscences of a Visit to Shaftesbury. Whitsuntide 1892. A present to Auntie from Ernest.” This album contained a treasure trove of over 100 architectural views, street scenes, and a few portraits of rural laborers from Wiltshire, Dorset, and Somerset. Beneath the image of the stooped man, the photographer had inscribed, “A Wiltshire thatcher.” Subsequent investigations have pointed to the identity of this thatcher as Lot Long (sometimes Longyear). Lot Long, born in Mere in 1823, passed away in 1893. When the photograph was taken, he was a widower residing in a modest cottage on Shaftesbury Road in Mere.
Legend has it that Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s celebrated vocalist, and his bandmate Jimmy Page encountered a colorized version of this photograph in an antique shop located in Pangbourne, a village situated about 50 miles west of London, along the banks of the River Thames. This colorized rendition of the image is now displayed at the Wiltshire Museum, providing a remarkable connection between rock music history and the long-forgotten life of Lot Long, the Wiltshire thatcher.