People: Julia Walker

Julia Walker made Cillian Murphy’s trademark flat cap in Peaky Blinders and worked on Russell Crowe’s body armour in Gladiator. Now the theatre maker is picking up her paintbrush to pursue new creative adventures. Interview by Deborah Grace.

What is your earliest memory?
Growing up, I was surrounded by art. There are artists on both sides of the family, including, on my mum’s side, a well-known Scottish artist, Arthur Melville, from the turn of the last century. He was my great, great uncle and one of the founding Glasgow Boys. He died young, aged 46, of tuberculosis, but he’s lived large in all our lives. His magnificent watercolours have been shown in the Tate, the National, the Whitworth – everywhere. And I grew up seeing some of these paintings on the walls of my grandparents’ house! I was always artistic, but the thought of trying to live up to Arthur Melville put me off painting, so I did other things, like clothes-making. I thought I was going to be a fashion designer!

Tell me about your work in theatre design
I’ve worked for the Royal Exchange Theatre since 1992, where I’ve occupied the grey area between costumes and props. I’ve made everything – hats, head-dresses, masks, jewellery and even a wooden corset. Last year, I made the head-dresses for The Producers. I painted the costumes for Mother Courage and Queens of the Coal Age to make them look dirty. I also worked on Frankenstein; I did all the blood, a lot of gore!

Most unusual/memorable job?
I made a man out of flowers for last year’s Royal Exchange touring production of The Mysteries. If it’s weird, or they need a problem solving, they come to me. I worked on the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games; I prototyped the head dresses for the opening ceremony. It felt very significant at the time, like being right in the heart of Manchester.

You’ve also worked in film and TV?
I worked on Gladiator, for the chap who made Russell Crowe’s armour. I was one of a team in a workshop in Yorkshire and it was like a production line. For every one thing you see on screen, there are about four versions. I also made the hats for Cillian Murphy and his gang in the second or third series of Peaky Blinders. I wasn’t on set; most of us work from home. I didn’t even watch Peaky Blinders. I’m not a big TV watcher and I’m not into gangster stuff.

What brought you to painting?
I started painting three or four years ago at a difficult time in my personal life. Painting has been a form of therapy, escapism and a release because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve just had my first exhibition, Out of the Blue, at Didsbury Parsonage. It included a series of life drawings and the rest were mainly abstracts, very fluid, playing with inks and watercolour mixes on paper. All my art is an ongoing experiment to find my own expression.