Don’t worry – there are Moomins aplenty at the new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. But the simply-titled Tove Jansson exhibition digs deep into the history of her work. The exhibition has already been shown in other parts of the world, but this is its debut in the UK – in fact, it’s the first exhibition of Jansson’s work to ever come to Britain, something startling given the popularity of her books.

Even so, I’m going to go lightly on the spoilers. Photography is a bit of a no-no on this one, but (with permission) I’ve included a few shots to give an idea of what to expect. Suffice to say: this is one that really has to be seen.

The exhibition proceeds in chronological order, with her early paintings in the first room. Many of these are self-portraits, and her style is at once unique, confident and breathtaking. This is like being immersed in the classiest Instagram feed you’ve ever seen. Also in this room is a vitrine containing her covers from Garm, including a hastily-withdrawn unflattering portrait of Stalin; it was felt that running this cover could have threatened the peace talks that were underway. And of course Snork, her ur-Moomin makes an appearance on a few of the covers.

There are seascapes, there are portraits of family and Tuulikki Pietila, and there are some shining examples of her illustrations work. Jansson provided artwork for Swedish-language editions of The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hunting of the Snark, and many of these are included. There are also a lot of the preliminary sketches and studies for these, done in pencil, ink, even ballpoint. One thing that constantly amazes is that these drawings are tiny. The pen strokes are microscopic in some cases, to the extent that you wonder if she was using a pin to draw them.

And yes, there are Moomins. There are early commercial models (and I’ll talk about these in a later post), actual artwork from the books and again, loads of preliminary sketches. And again, these are where the fascination lies; you get to see the subtle-but-important alterations made, minute changes in character position or framing. Even the roughest of the roughs have life and movement that make many completed cartoons look static and lifeless.


And there are some real finds here too. Most of the original strips were destroyed when the Evening News closed down, but a cache of the originals were recently found in a box in Canterbury. Again, I’ll cover these in detail in a later post. There are some Lars Jansson strips too, including Moomin and the Ten Piggy Banks. This is an important find – there has been some question about whether Lars did his later strips in English or just Swedish.

There are many touching moments. Tove’s final, somewhat unflattering portrait of herself is powerful and beautiful. A poster for a play starring her former lover and lifelong friend Vivica Bandler is an unusual mix of dark colours and circus madness, and there are collaborative works signed by her and Lars, nicknamed ‘Lasse’ in one picture. We learn that they did indeed collaborate on the Håll Sverige Rent posters, which appeared on the immensely collectible mugs.

Needless to say, there’s a well-stocked gift shop, a café serving Finnish cinnamon buns, and an atmospheric reading room for children, with Moomin books in almost every language.

Jennifer Scott and her team – in particular Clare Simpson and Dana Mokkadem – have worked wonders in bringing this incredible exhibition to what is actually an incredible gallery (I felt a little embarrassed about not having visited before on its own merits). The exhibition is on now, so put down that iPhone and get yourself down to Dulwich.