Scaling France’s model gardens down to size

Jacques Hennequin believes he is the only garden model-maker in France. Here, he tells The Connexion all about his unusual job...

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Jacques Hennequin, 71, loves his job – and is convinced he is the only person in France to do it.

He makes model gardens for a living and has recreated in miniature many of France’s finest gardens, including the Grand Trianon at Versailles and Villandry. He has recently donated many of his models to the Nuage Vert museum at Argentat-sur-Dordogne, Corrèze and they will be on display for an exhibition of his work from May 31 to June 30.

What made you take this unusual career route?

I have loved making models since I was a boy, but for 25 years I worked as an audio-visual engineer in television.

When I was 48, I was made redundant and then had to find some way of earning money.

So I tried to think of something I both knew I could do and enjoyed doing – and decided to have a go at making garden models for a living.

I started by making and sending one part of the vegetable garden at Château de Villandry in the Loire.

They liked it so much I got my first order, which was to reproduce the entire gardens in miniature.

It took me six months. I made it in 12 sections on a scale of 1cm to 1m and the wonderful thing is, it is still on display at the Château today.

Did you find work easily after that?

It has not always been easy, as I am the only one doing this kind of work and so have had to create a clientele that did not exist before.

Also there is just me, so as well as making the models I have also had to go out and sell myself and my work.

Over the years I have built up three different groups of clients. One group is the owners of private properties that are open to the public and the model is used as a taste of what is to come in a visit.

The second are local councils who want to show what a new project will look like and the third are museums who want to show what a garden or a park used to look like and involves a lot of fascinating research. I have had periods when I have had to work hard to find clients.

How do you go about making your models?

When it is a garden that already exists it is quite easy, because there is already an existing plan and I can visit and take photos and be inspired by what I call ‘the spirit of the place’.

Then I trace the plan on to a base and then, if I can put it this way, I “plant” the vegetation little by little, referring to the photos and other documents.

If it is a garden which no longer exists I have to carry out research. I made a model of the Grand Trianon garden at Versailles from the original plan drawn up by Le Nôtre. This model took me nearly six months to make, a total of 700 hours, including the research.

What materials do you use?

Apart from polystyrene which I use to create a relief, I only use natural materials. So, wood or cardboard for buildings, sand or sawdust for pathways, moss, wool and lichen for vegetation.

I can buy different coloured lichens from nearby shops which sell it for model railway enthusiasts.

I pay great attention to detail so that a willow tree will look like a willow and an oak like an oak. I try to get the colours right in the flowerbeds. Many of the elements are not coloured, so when they are all in place I have to carefully paint them, making sure I get them as near to reality as possible.

I am constantly working to make sure I get the colours as near as possible to those in nature, so that the public can recognise them.

Do you need many specialist tools?

No, I keep it simple and just have a few dentists’ tools and wood glue.

What qualities do you need to do your kind of work?

You have to pay attention to detail and enjoy working with tiny elements, which also means you need dexterity.

You have to really love it because it takes hours and hours to make a model. I have not met any other people doing this professionally in France, but I believe there are at least 10 in the UK.

Which is your favourite model?

I do not have a favourite because I always love the project I am working on at the time. It is always fascinating and I really do not see the time pass when I am in my workshop. I can stay there for hours.

French-style gardens are not the easiest to do but are a real challenge. I like working on English-style gardens which are a bit freer.

Do you love real gardens as well?

Yes, I am passionate about gardens and I have created two associations in my area.

One is called Hortensia and organises guided visits by professionals to the most interesting gardens all round France; and the second is one which campaigns to prevent the green areas in my department from being developed.

I live close to Paris in a very urban environment where we need to make sure that we can keep as many existing natural spaces as possible.

Why did you decide to hand over some of your models to a museum?

In that way, my models and my plans will be kept safe for the future, and they will be able to be used for research.

I have already taken 20 of them to the museum in Argentat-sur-Dordogne and will take more soon. I live a long way away but I will be happy to go for the exhibition of my work, which will open at the end of May and coincide with the Rendez-vous des Jardins weekend.

If you are giving your works to a museum, does this mean you are about to retire?

I do not like the concept of retirement because I associate the word “retraite” with stepping back from life which is something I do not want to do. I love being in my workshop, so I will not be hanging up my tools just yet. If anybody would like me to make them a model of their garden, I am ready to do so!