A TAVISTOCK student has spoken of her excitement of discovering a rare artefact in a local college which helps uncover the origins of the UK's most precious national art collection.

A Victorian passport, once owned by renowned artist, art connoisseur and first Director of the National Gallery, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, has been discovered in an old chest at Mount Kelly College, in Tavistock.

The artefact was found by a volunteer archivist at Mount Kelly, Sarah Coe, whose mother works at the college, when she was working on her MA in heritage theory and practice at Plymouth University.

She made the discovery while undertaking a detailed study of archive material dating back to Mount Kelly’s founder, Admiral Kelly, when she discovered the passport.

group Mount Kelly passport handed over to National Gallery
Sarah Coe, Susanna Avery-Quash, Guy Ayling and Heather Ayling. (Guy Boswell/Tindle)

Admiral Kelly was a successful 19th century Admiral who played a significant role in the elimination of the slave trade and founded the roots of Mount Kelly back in 1860 ‘for the sons of naval officers and other gentlemen’.

“I was going through an old chest of Admiral Kelly’s papers one afternoon and it was there I spotted this very old passport stamped with the name Sir C L Eastlake and I immediately researched it,” said Sarah.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793 - 1865) was not only the President of the Royal Academy from 1850, but also the National Gallery's first Director in 1855. He travelled throughout Europe acquiring significant paintings for the Gallery and implemented important changes which helped to form it into the institution it is today. He was a man described by one contemporary as the ‘Alpha and Omega’ of the Victorian art world. 

According to the National Gallery, his attempts to run the Gallery along professional lines was ground breaking and set an example which has been followed by the National Gallery ever since.

The passport has numerous consular stamps, many dated 1858, which is when he travelled across Europe to inspect works in private and public collections and to purchase works for the National Gallery and for the people of the UK, to whom the collection belongs.

Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery is visiting Mount Kelly in person to collect the valuable artefact for loan to The National Gallery.

“This is an incredible discovery,” said Dr Avery-Quash. “The National Gallery archive already preserves another Eastlake passport (with a red cover as opposed to a black one) so the loan of the Mount Kelly Eastlake passport will happily reunite the two related documents.

“It will provide us with more information about the fascinating life and work of Sir Charles who was hugely relevant to the Victorian art world and pivotal to the origins and development of the National Gallery, the institution we know and love today.

“No subsequent Director has been able to match the range and quality of Sir Charles’s acquisitions during his decade in office. And his desire to display pictures in well-lit and sympathetically decorated rooms, and to arrange them in appropriate frames and in historical sequence, still influences the arrangement of paintings in the Gallery’s permanent collection today.”

But the mystery still remains as to how the passport came to be in the possession of the School. Guy Ayling, Head Master at Mount Kelly said, “We know Sir Charles was born in Plymouth and was the son of an Admiralty lawyer, which suggests a connection between the Kelly and the Eastlake families. But that is all we know and we would like to learn more.”