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On Nov. 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin released its iconic fourth studio album, which was untitled but is widely known as “Led Zeppelin IV.” It features the band’s major hit “Stairway to Heaven,” and the wordless cover shows the framed image of a bearded, older man with a large bundle of sticks on his back against the backdrop of a decaying wall.
Now, 52 years later to the day, a minor mystery about that cover has been solved.
Sometimes thought to be a painting, the image, it turns out, was a Victorian-era photograph of a man who made thatched roofs for cottages in Wiltshire, a rural county in southwestern England. His name was Lot Long and he was 69 at the time, according to Brian Edwards, a researcher who found the photo.
Mr. Edwards, a visiting research fellow at the University of the West of England, stumbled upon the picture in March while scouring the internet for new releases at auction houses that might be interesting for his research, which includes the area’s well-known landmark Stonehenge.
As he was looking through a Victorian photo album full of landscapes and houses, Mr. Edwards noticed a photo he had seemingly seen before.
“There was something familiar about it straight away,” he said in a phone interview. (Mr. Edwards was the proud owner of a “Led Zeppelin IV” LP from the year the album was released, he said, and he listens to it to this day, albeit on a CD.)
After a quick call to his wife for a “sanity check,” he concluded: This was indeed the image on the cover of one of the most epic musical releases of his teenage years. He then called the Wiltshire Museum, where he curated an exhibit in 2021.
The museum bought the photo album for 420 pounds (about $515), according to the auctioneer’s website.
The photo album’s first page states, “Reminiscences of a visit to Shaftesbury,” and is made out as “a present to Auntie from Ernest.”
Based on that information, Mr. Edwards researched the origins of the photo album and was able to conclude that the photographer was a man by the name of Ernest Howard Farmer.
“It sounds like good detective work, but in truth there was a lot of luck involved,” Mr. Edwards said. “I caught a few good breaks.”
As for how that photo ended up on the album cover: Legend has it that Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s vocalist, and his bandmate Jimmy Page were in an antique shop in Pangbourne, a village about 50 miles west of London along the River Thames, where they spotted a colorized version of the photograph that will be on view in the Wiltshire Museum.
Because the photographer, Mr. Farmer, was also a teacher, Mr. Edwards said, one plausible theory is that he used the picture to teach colorizing to his students. One of those versions may have ended up in a frame in an antique shop. That colorized version of the picture seems to have been lost.
The photo album included about 100 photos showing architectural views and street scenes together with a few portraits of rural workers, according to the Wiltshire Museum, where the photos will be on display.
“We will show how Farmer captured the spirit of people, villages and landscapes of Wiltshire and Dorset, an adjoining county, that were so much of a contrast to his life in London,” the museum said in an announcement about the exhibit.
“Even if this Led Zeppelin photograph wasn’t in there, this would be a very interesting exhibition about the quality of Victorian photographs,” Mr. Edwards said.