Tove Marika Jansson was conceived in Paris – city of artists – in late 1913, and was born in Helsinki at 11:55 AM on Sunday 9 August 1914. Her mother, illustrator Signe Hammarsten (Ham) and her father, sculptor Viktor Jansson (Faffan), recorded their daughter’s life in their art from the moment she was born. At her mother’s side, Tove learned to draw almost before she learned to walk. ‘Maybe our Tove will grow up to be a great artist. A really great artist!’ Viktor wrote to Signe from the clamour of the frontlines during the Finnish Civil War in the early months of 1918.
Tove’s parents were separated during the Finnish Civil War. Viktor missed his daughter a lot, but the many photos taken at Signe’s house eased the pain of separation.

Home and studio, work and family, all melded together during Tove and her younger brothers’ childhood. Constantly watching and learning from their parents, who were always working away on their art, led all three children to follow artistic careers: Tove became a painter and graphic artist, Per Olov (born 1920) a photographer, and Lars (born 1926) a writer and Moomin cartoonist. As a counterbalance to their intensive periods of work, Faffan knew how to party and Ham how to throw one. Their salon often became the setting for impromptu get-togethers.

‘I love Dad’s parties. They can last many a night, and during that time you’ll wake up and doze off again, rocking back and forth amid the smoke and music, until all of a sudden, an icy yelp will pierce through the warmth, right down to your toes.’

‘Mum’s a skilled hostess. She doesn’t lay everything out ready on the table and never invites anyone over. She knows that the right mood can only be created through improvisation. What a beautiful word! Dad has to go into town to search for their friends. They can be anywhere at any time. Then Mum says, “Well, let’s see what’s in the pantry...” And everyone goes quiet, but when she opens the door, it’s full! Fine sausages, bottles, loaves of bread, butter, cheese, even mineral water. And then we bring everything in and improvise. Mum had everything ready.’

‘The most beautiful thing for me is the table. Sometimes I get up and peer over the edge, squinting so that everything starts to shine – the glasses and lights and everything else – and they all come together as one, just like in a painting. Wholeness is important. Some people just paint pictures of individual items and forget the whole. I know. I know a lot about these things, but I never say.’

Excerpts from Tove Jansson’s Sculptor’s Daughter (Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968).

Viktor, the proud father, with Tove and Per Olov.
The Jansson family supported each other in everything and even acted as their own closest critics. Life was all about pulling together and its keywords were freedom, responsibility and family loyalty. Faffan’s career was a rollercoaster of competitions, prizes won and lost, achievements and disappointments. Like many other gifted sculptors of his time, Faffan worked in the shadow of Wäinö Aaltonen. It was Ham who provided a steady source of income for the family.

In view of the times, Ham was a very independent woman. Even though she was first and foremost a wife and mother, she also worked outside the home. Their home studio provided a well-lit and spacious area for Faffan, with enough space left over for Ham to work on her illustrations.

Responsibility for her family – and above all love for her family – provided extra impetus for Tove’s fledging career. Ham had exhausted herself through overwork in an effort to provide for her family. When Tove was only fourteen, she took on one of Ham’s cover illustrations.

‘Should I let Mum slave away alone, even though Uncle Einar thinks I can help?’ the sixteen-year-old Tove wrote in a letter.

Ham became a vital coach for Tove in her career as a graphic artist and illustrator, and she also introduced Tove to publishing houses and editors.

During her first year of study in Stockholm, Tove wrote: ‘I have to become an artist for the sake of my family.

’In 1947, Tove drew up her ex libris, which included one of her most important mottos: ‘Labora et amare’.

In his home studio, Viktor works in a softer style, sculpting the female form as a counterbalance to his post-war memorials.
When civil war broke out in 1918, Viktor enlisted in the White Army. He was a patriot and was prepared to die for his country. Although Faffan returned from the horrors of war, he didn’t return as his old self. Amid the absurdity of the civil war, his art and family became an ever more powerful source of hope and a symbol of the sanctity of life. Viktor poured all of his longing, expectations and dreams into little Tove, hoping fervently that she would one day become an artist – no matter if she were a man or a woman, an illustrator or a sculptor.

Viktor’s letters from the front bring history to life. His spellbinding stories, tinged by longing, draw you into the atmosphere of the times.

‘This is no ordinary war – mercy is neither given nor received,’ he wrote to Ham.

After his return, the artist who had once been so full of life was now gloomy and remote. Only storms could dispel his brooding moods – they gave Viktor the chance to take charge of his life, to save what could be saved and to rebuild what had been broken.

‘Dad became gloomier and gloomier, until he finally stopped talking altogether. One morning, he didn’t even go out fishing. He simply lay in bed, staring at the ceiling with his lips clenched. And it kept getting hotter and hotter. But then, all of a sudden, the water rose. The door burst open and banged on its hinges, and we ran to the stairs and saw the breakers foaming behind Karikivi, and then white foam all the way to the well, and Dad was ecstatic and shouted, “Goddammit what weather!”, and he dragged on his trousers and was outside in the blink of an eye.’

‘Everything in the yard had been blown into the sea and the land gusts were sweeping our stuff toward the inlet, and the wind waxed stronger and stronger, and it seemed as if the water would never stop rising. I, too, shouted with joy and waded back and forth, feeling the blades of grass swaying in the swell and encircling my legs. I rescued some planks and occasionally Dad would run past and drag a log back to shore, shouting, “What do you make of this then? It’s just getting stronger and stronger!”

And then he wrenched the door open and rushed into the kitchen, shouting, “Goddammit! Picture this: the water’s risen half a metre in the boatshed! The clay looks just like gruel. Hellfire, what a storm! But what do you do, eh?”

“How dreadful,” Mum said, looking as pleased as Dad.’

Excerpts from Tove Jansson’s Sculptor’s Daughter (Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968).


Like her mother before her, Signe was the ‘wild pastor’s daughter’ of her generation.

Signe Hammarsten was born in 1882 in Hännäs in the province of Kalmar, Sweden. She was the younger of two daughters and had four little brothers. The young Signe loved to ride – but not side-saddle – and was also a good shot. She even performed at a trick riding event that was attended by the King and Queen.

As a girl, Signe’s emancipation was directed towards the outdoor life: she went hiking, canoeing, sailing, mountain climbing, skiing... She wanted to study, practise a profession and live her life on her own terms, just as men did. She was also involved in starting a scouting organisation for girls, as it had previously been open only to boys. Girls should be allowed to enjoy the outdoors just like boys!

As a young adult, Signe Hammarsten studied at the School of Applied Arts in Stockholm, where she obtained good grades. She was on her way to becoming a drawing instructor, even though she dreamed of a career as a sculptor. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, this was very difficult for a young woman. After her younger brothers’ educations had been paid for, the family could not afford to finance Signe’s studies as well. Yet Signe was able to take a few courses in sculpture and get the hang of plaster casting.

As an art student, Signe also wanted to travel, and it was on her second trip to Paris that she met her future husband, Viktor.

Even before she was married, Signe was forced to give up her most radical artistic dreams. From the outset, she and Viktor worked together on plaster casting and Signe gradually began to sign her husband’s works. If necessary, she might even improve them.

The teacher who had dreamed of becoming a sculptor instead became a graphic artist, wife and mother. And it was Ham’s drawings that ensured a steady flow of income for the family. She was one of the best-known caricaturists of her time and also secured a permanent position at the bank-note press of the Bank of Finland. After long days drawing stamp designs, she would often spend the evenings happily working on cover designs and other illustrations.

Everything at the artists’ home emanated cosiness.

Storytelling was an important part of the Jansson family’s life. Just like Tove, her brothers Per Olov and Lars also published their debut books in the 1940s.

At only fifteen, Lars published an adventure novel, Skatten på Tortuga (1941), which was very well received. Ham drew the cover illustration, as she did for his following books Härskaren (1945), ...och ändå gryr dagen (1946) and Jag är min egen oro (1950).

Per Olov’s short story collection (Ung man vandrar allena) was published in 1945, the same year as Tove’s first Moomin book. 1946 saw the publication of Per Olov’s novel Bok med Lycklig slut. Ham also did the illustrations and cover design for ‘Prolle’s’ books.

The brothers’ early works depict the everyday life of an artistic family and an artists’ home. Professor Boel Westin, who wrote Tove Jansson’s biography, found clear similarities to the Jansson family’s life. However, writing itself also held greater significance – it was an act of rebellion against the dominant status images held in the family. Yet it was also a natural continuation to the family’s obvious proclivity for storytelling.

The Jansson siblings worked on joint projects throughout their lives. Some of the best-known fruits of their collaboration are the Moomin comic strips created by Tove and Lars. However, by the 1950s, Tove began to feel enslaved to producing the books at such a rapid rate and she was relieved when Lars took full responsibility for illustrating the comic strips from 1959. By 1975, Lars had managed to draw 52 full-length stories. His own literary career, which had gotten off to such a quick start, faded into the background. During his Moomin era, Lars only published one novel: Five Thousand Pounds (Fem tusen pund, 1967). This acclaimed thriller was set in London and was later adapted into a Finnish TV movie (Tuomas Murasen rikos, 1994, directed by Jukka Sipilä).

As a photographer, Per Olov has documented not only Tove herself, but also her works and studio. An example of their later collaboration can be found in the last Moomin book, An Unwanted Guest (Skurken i muminhuset, 1980), which was illustrated with photos taken by Per Olov.

Visits from Harald and other uncles made a huge impact on Tove.

‘My granddad was a pastor and he preached to the king. Once upon a time, before Granddad’s children and grandchildren and great grandchildren filled the Earth, he came to a green meadow that nestled between the forest and mountains, like a valley in paradise. Only one end of the meadow was open, leading to a bay where his descendants could swim in the sea.’

Excerpt from Tove Jansson’s Sculptor’s Daughter (Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968).

Fredrik Hammarsten, Signe’s father and Tove’s grandfather, came from Eastern Gotland, Sweden. In 1908, after working as a curate, assistant pastor and pastor, he was appointed pastor of Jakob’s Parish in Stockholm. He was known as a preacher of God’s mercy: a humble and modest man whose collections of sermons were some of the most-read devotional books of his time.

In 1870, Fredrik married Elin Emanuelsson. Elin was the daughter of a famous revivalist dean and in her youth had been dubbed ‘the wild pastor’s daughter’. But she was forced to adapt to the times and went on to embrace her role of pastor’s wife and mother. She did, however, pass on the liberalism of her youth to her daughter Signe, who became the ‘wild pastor’s daughter’ of the next generation.

Ham also had an extensive family and a slew of siblings who were very important to Tove. Her adventurous, stubborn uncles Torsten, Olov, Einar and Harald made a powerful impression on her, both in person and through their stories. They even inspired her to write a short story called My Dear Uncles. Listening to her uncles competing against each other with their ghost stories, it seemed to Tove that making things up was ‘an incurable family fault’.



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