Madoo Conservancy: A Painterly Paradise in the Hamptons

By Stephanie Sporn

Fifty years ago, painter Robert Dash purchased a modest plot of land in the Hamptons, when he joined his fellow New York artists who escaped the city for the eastern end of Long Island to make work – and to socialise. Dash, a legendary host, built a house and studio and planted gardens on the property, where he lived until his death in 2013. In 1993, the grounds opened publicly as Madoo Conservancy, a nonprofit foundation established by Dash that is dedicated to the study, preservation and enhancement of Madoo. Just shy of two acres, the conservancy hosts rotating art exhibitions and attracts Dash’s legion admirers, the interior design and fashion crowd (Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan are fans) along with garden enthusiasts. This summer at Madoo, Sotheby’s will host a summer cocktail event each Saturday between 16 July and 27 August. The sunset series launches with a preview of our Contemporary Living sale and continues with a summer wine tasting, upcoming auction highlights and more. Sotheby’s was welcomed to this charming garden by Alejandro Saralegui, Madoo’s executive director. “It’s still a secret gem,” says Saralegui, who spoke with us about Robert Dash, his legacy and why Madoo is proud to remain one of the Hamptons’s best-kept secrets.  

For more information on Sotheby's summer series at Madoo, please email


To appreciate Madoo is to understand its freethinking founder. How did Dash’s artistic background influence the garden? Did the garden inspire his work?
He had a great line, “I paint with a trowel, and I garden with a brush.” Although he didn’t necessarily say it’s not an artist’s garden, he didn’t paint en plein air. Rather than painting outside, he painted inside from memory and from photographs, so it was a very contemporary way of painting landscapes. Madoo’s bright colours that I used for the hardscape, trims and gazebos aren’t necessarily represented in his work. Dash generally had a much softer palette.  

Perhaps, it was more the spirit of his artwork that can be felt in the gardens?
Exactly. What carries through is a very romantic expressionistic feeling. In the garden, there aren’t a lot of straight lines, but there are lots of meandering paths. You get this feeling like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Dash started out as a poet. “Madoo,” means “my dove” in Old Scots, so it’s this really poetic and romantic idea that he named the garden after a dove. He did a late series around 2001 of Sagg road, the road Madoo is on, and it’s Madoo under eleven weather conditions. They’re all painted at the same time, and they’re all very similar compositionally, but colour-wise, they indicate the weather and a very specific time, memory and feeling in his brain. In a way, it’s like Monet’s Haystacks with a different time period, but not painted there. It’s more of a memory.   


Did Dash consider gardening an art form in itself? Do you?
I definitely think so. These days, people are so transitory, but gardens that have developed over a long time, especially European gardens that have been around for centuries, they’re treated like artworks. The making of them can be considered an artistic process. It’s one that constantly changes, which actually makes it very contemporary in a funny way. There’s this whole element of nature that you can’t control. Whereas the earlier canon of art is very much about freezing time or having very specific parameters, something like a garden is constantly changing. Bob was very interested in having the garden not be preserved in amber. I think that was a very artistic side of him speaking and saying, experiment, play with new colours and new plants and put cool combinations together. If you look at his paintings, there’s a ton of clashing colours, but they end up working.   

Madoo references many garden styles. Was Dash particularly influenced by one? 
I would say English gardening. When this garden was coming together in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a huge influence of English gardening in America, and that really created a sort of renaissance of gardening. Bob became very good friends with a woman named Rosemary Verey who is English and had a famous home called Barnsley House in Gloucestershire. There are elements in Madoo that are interpretations of Rosemary’s garden, and at Barnsley House, there used to be a Robert Dash perennial border garden.  

It’s a remarkable legacy that Robert Dash left us both a great body of work and a garden that people enjoy in perpetuity.

What would you say was his biggest contribution to garden design?  
At Madoo, it’s the gingko grove. They’re not like the gingkos in the city that are very wide. These are very narrow, and they grow straight up, and then we prune them every two years to make them even more so. They’re like green flagpoles, and then at their feet are interspersed boxwood balls pruned into perfect spheres. Boxwood is an ancient shrub that’s been used endlessly from places like the Alhambra to all over England and France. So you’ve got an ancient tree that’s probably one of the oldest trees on the planet with this shrub, and the mix is very modern.  

Do you think Dash would be proud of his creative and cultural legacy?
I think at some point in his career, as the gardening became more famous than his art, he might not have been too happy about that, but I think it’s a remarkable legacy that he’s left us both: a great body of work and a garden that people enjoy in perpetuity.  


What do you think is the power of Madoo?
Madoo is a lot of things to a lot of different people. People are very attracted to it. It’s not too overwhelming. There are things that are big, but they’re big by virtue of time, not by virtue of having spent a lot of money. There’s nothing terribly fancy here, yet it’s very attractive and comfortable because of that. Materials are simple. One of the key features of the garden is that it’s both a plantsman’s and a designer’s garden. You usually get a plantsman’s garden, which is kind of a big mess of lots and lots of plants, or you get a designer’s garden where the design is really sharp, but the plants aren’t really all that great. It’s hard to find the two together, especially in this country.  

I think the fact that this quaint garden exists in the Hamptons is really interesting and a little unexpected. Do you feel that as the Hamptons becomes increasingly popular and busy, Madoo is a step back in time?  
It’s definitely an oasis. It’s still a secret gem for a lot of people. For better or for worse, there are a lot of McMansions now and big houses on small lots without great landscaping, and we’re losing the feel every year it seems. But here, you’ve got this piece of old Sagaponack, a living organism that is joining the times but still has a lot of respect for the past. One of the barns dates to 1740 and the other 1850. It’s this quirky artist world.   

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