Brian Edwards, a visiting research fellow at the University of West of England, has found a photo in an online auction that was the basis for the iconic album cover of Led Zeppelin's fourth album. Now the identity of the man and the background of the photo are known. Link to the article in The New York Times here.
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.
A handwritten caption on the photos reads: "A Wiltshire Thatcher."
Edwards's research revealed that the photographer's name was Ernest Howard Farmer, and the black and white photo, dated to the 1890s, was in a photo album titled "Reminiscences of a visit to Shaftesbury."
Because the photo used on the album cover was colorized, many had believed that it was a painting.
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.
A 2021 article in Far Out Magazine explains the band's intention in choosing the image for the album cover (link here), incorrectly describing it as an oil painting, and naming a different village for the site of its discovery.
Interestingly, the rest of the album artwork also has a tale to tell. Famously, the focal point of the cover is a rustic oil painting featuring a farmer. It was purchased from an antique shop in Reading by Plant and hung on a wall in a partly demolished city house. The image was juxtaposed to its reverse, the grey picture of Salisbury Tower block of flats in Birmingham.
The band explained that the cover was meant to encapsulate the dichotomy between the city and the country, a theme the band had first discussed on Led Zeppelin III. It was intended as a reminder to look after the planet, a theme that is more pertinent than ever today.