Atomic nuclei are finite quantum systems composed of two distinct types of fermion--protons and neutrons. In a manner similar to that of electrons orbiting in an atom, protons and neutrons in a nucleus form shell structures. In the case of stable, naturally occurring nuclei, large energy gaps exist between shells that fill completely when the proton or neutron number is equal to 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 or 126 (ref. 1). Away from stability, however, these so-called `magic numbers' are known to evolve in systems with a large imbalance of protons and neutrons. Although some of the standard shell closures can disappear, new ones are known to appear. Studies aiming to identify and understand such behaviour are of major importance in the field of experimental and theoretical nuclear physics. Here we report a spectroscopic study of the neutron-rich nucleus 54Ca (a bound system composed of 20 protons and 34 neutrons) using proton knockout reactions involving fast radioactive projectiles. The results highlight the doubly magic nature of 54Ca and provide direct experimental evidence for the onset of a sizable subshell closure at neutron number 34 in isotopes far from stability.