The Artists Open Houses festival returns this month, with more than 180 homes and studios opening to the public. But there will be one notable venue missing from the map: The Handmade House – the Ditchling home and studio of the self-taught ceramicist, product designer and teacher Ralph Levy, who died suddenly in January.
“He was always very inspiring and encouraging to other creative people,” recalls Lucy Greenaway, who worked with Ralph and at one time shared The Handmade House. “He had a particular way about him and was quite experimental. He never had one particular style. He was always trying something new.”
Originally from New Zealand, Ralph came to Sussex by way of Australia and Greece, picking up inspiration from ancient Roman and Greek pottery along the way. He arrived in Brighton in the 80s where he set up studio in one of the seafront arches, and moved to Ditchling in 2001 when a friend offered him a house at Beards Place Farm. “It was a total wreck – it had been a care home for difficult boys and one of the rooms had been set on fire – but there was so much potential. Gradually he did it up – making many of the fixtures and fittings himself – and that became the inspiration for The Handmade House.”
He refurbished spaces for studios; room to create his own work in ceramic, concrete and metal, as well as space for teaching pottery. “It became a real centre of creative activity,” explains Lucy, “enabling people to do better than they would on their own. He was a very good teacher. Patient and able to inspire those who were there for the love of making.”
For many years Ralph participated in the AOH festival, filling the house and garden with his own work and that of his friends and students. Collaborating with local artists was one of his long-term passions; making pots inspired by their work for them to decorate. “When he was working with an artist, there was a lot of saying ‘yes’ to projects,” says the painter Chris Gilvan-Cartwright. “It was a real collaboration. It’s a rare thing, that openness to creativity. He made me feel like Picasso working at the Medora workshops.” Other collaborators included the painters Sophie Abbott and Gary Goodman – just two of many – both of whom had been working with Ralph as he planned to open the house again this May.
Sadly, that won’t happen but there will be a chance to see his work. Lucy Greenaway and Kate Sherman have been collecting pots and photographs from across his career for an exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. A small celebration of his boundless creativity and generosity of spirit.
“When you drove down the pathway to his place in Ditchling, you never knew what was going to happen,” recalls Chris Gilvan-Cartwright. “But you knew it was going to be something magical and exciting. And that is the greatest thing I’ll miss. He enabled the magic to happen. Very few people can do that.”
Photos by Graham Carlow
Ralph Levy, Maker will be at Ditchling Museum from 4th May – 2nd June.