CS Lewis Centre Opens in Belmont Tower
The creator of the Narnia series is celebrated with permanent exhibition
Proudly displayed on the wall of the newly opened CS Lewis Centre in Belmont Tower is a quote from the man himself. 'I think we Strandtown and Belmont people had among us as much kindness, wit, beauty and taste as any circle of the same size that I have ever known.'
For Lewis (or Jack, to his friends and family) Belfast was anything but a hopeless place. It inspired him as an author and influenced his work. Director of the CS Lewis Centre, and lifelong aficionado of the Lewis pantheon, Sandy Smith, hopes that this new permanent exhibition of Lewis' works will inspire and influence residents and visitors to the city alike.
Lewis was born just 400 yards from Belmont Tower, in a house known as Little Lea on Dundela Avenue. He was baptised in St Marks, where his grandfather was rector, and attended Campbell College as a boy.
Indeed, when Lewis’ politically minded father was aspiring to a seat in Westminster he gave a speech in Belmont Tower. And while Lewis achieved world-renowned academic and literary success, Smith argues that the author never forgot his roots.
'To CS Lewis, Belfast was always home and he had a fondness for this area in particular. So it is really fitting to have the exhibition here in Belmont Tower.
'I think Belfast has been remiss in not celebrating him more. Narnia may be a fantastical and far away land, but I always say that it is also an Irish colony, discovered and populated by an Irishman!'
Smith is deservedly proud of the permanent exhibition at the centre, launched this this to coincide with Lewis’ birthday. It contains many of Lewis' first editions supplied by Smith himself (‘loaned’, as he is quick to correct me, with a chuckle).
Having led a CS Lewis literary tour around Belfast for the past six years, and given lectures throughout Northern Ireland, Smith is one of the foremost authorities on the author. His enthusiasm shines through as he gives a tour of the exhibition.
There are cabinets containing Lewis’ novels (most famously the Narnia series), his academic work with Tolkien and the Oxford literary group he co-founded, the Inklings, his fictional and non-fictional collections of letters and a sizeable theatre upstairs for showing DVDs.
Quotes from Lewis and his peers pepper the walls. There is also information about the surrounding area and its relation to the writer and his work. In the middle of the room sits a homely table and chair, a hounds-tooth jacket slung over the back. A copy of CS Lewis At the Breakfast Table is casually left out. Smith is particularly fond of this addition, making it feel as if ‘Lewis was right here, but he just popped out’.
Lewis often cited the Mourne Mountains as an influence on the Narnia landscape. He stated that ‘walking through the hills [I] could easily imagine a giant coming over the horizon’. Lewis also found inspiration for the books in his immediate surroundings.
'Not many people know it, but the wardrobe was real,' Smith enthuses, holding a picture of an ornate armoire, 'and not only that, but it was built in Harland and Wolff.' The wardrobe was crafted by Lewis’ grandfather, who worked in the famous shipyard, and whose hobby was woodcraft. He built the beautiful cabinet in his spare time.
A vivid childhood memory for Lewis was his grandfather (who lived just round the corner on Parkgate Avenue) delivering the wardrobe to the family home. The famous wardrobe now resides across the water, displayed in a CS Lewis centre in Illinois – in fact, Smith has made many pilgrimages to see it.
The final part of the exhibition focuses on joy – a recurring theme throughout Lewis’ life. In his 1955 work, Surprised By Joy, he made a distinction between joy and happiness or pleasure. For him joy had to have ‘the stab of the unexpected’.
He used this expression when referring to his conversion to Christianity. It is also a theme that crops up throughout the rest of his works and indeed his life. Lewis married a woman named Joy Gresham, their relationship being the subject of the film Shadowlands.
Smith explains, when Lewis was a professor at Oxford, it was a running joke amongst his students that he had, once again, been ‘surprised by joy’. Even the Narnia books were about bringing life back to a ‘joyless land’. Not only did Lewis find plenty of joy in Belfast, but he also left plenty of love too.
Belmont Tower is located at 82 Belmont Church Road, Belfast. Telephone 028 9065 3338 for more information.