Finland: It's Moomin marvellous

Kate Simon visits the fairytale archipelago which inspired Tove Jansson, born 100 years ago

'My grandfather first rented a summer house to the Janssons – in fact, it was our home. We would move to a smaller place while they were staying." Cay Gustafsson is telling me about his family's long association with the writer and artist Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, the enchanted forest-dwelling creatures beloved by generations of children, and adults, around the world. "My father was just a year older than Tove," Cay continues. "Her birthday was on the 9 August, my father's on the 15. She would wear the traditional floral headdress then take it to my father to wear on his birthday."

Cay, a retired sea captain, is my guide to Klovharu, the island in the Gulf of Finland where Tove and her partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietila, based themselves for half the year from 1964 to 1992. The tiny, remote retreat was a place where Tove could commune with nature, the life force of her work. I'm making my pilgrimage in the centenary year of her birth.

It was once Cay's job to take Tove (say too-veh) and Tuuti, as Tuulikki was known, to their ocean refuge and call by every week or so with mail and provisions, just as his father had done. These days, Cay only makes the journey occasionally, to take visitors to see the simple summer shelter on a hump of granite in the Baltic Sea. The small wooden house, which has been preserved just as it was left when the two women turned the key for the final time, is open to day-trippers for just one week in July. For the rest of the summer season (June to mid-September) it is a place of creative contemplation for the artists who rent it out by the week from a local association to which it was bequeathed.

Cay and I have hitched a ride in a boat from near his home on Pellinge, one of the larger islands of the Porvoo archipelago, an hour's drive east of Helsinki. We creep along the shallows, sending a tremor through the unusually placid, inky waters. It's a sweltering summer, the hottest in 50 years; the sun has burnt away the clouds leaving barely a white puff hanging in the soft-blue sky.

The voyage takes just 20 minutes. We pass by Glosholm island, where once stood a lighthouse on which Tove modelled the Moomins' home, and Bredskar, a rock where she and brother Lars built a summer house. It is now owned by her niece, Sophia, the inspiration for the young girl in The Summer Book, which describes life here amid the changing seasons, with all its hopes and fears.

Out on the open sea, we cross the shipping lanes. "This is a good route in winter, only one icebreaker is needed for every 15 ships," says Cay. "It wasn't easy for Tove and Tutti to keep their boat moored out here – they did well. And sometimes, it was too difficult to land. Once, Signe, Tove's mother, had to jump in and swim to the shore."

On this fine day we have no such problem dropping anchor at Klovharu. More a skerry than an islet even, it may have appeared to be a speck on the horizon less than 10 minutes ago, but the diminutive size of this smooth cluster of granite boulders is even more striking close up. It would take barely a minute to cross its width or length. Just two trees and a bush have managed to take root in the grey and pink rock, while violas, candy-tuft and sea pink valiantly push out of the darkness of the crevices in search of the light.

We hop off the boat much to the anger of the shrieking and rasping swallows and terns, incandescent at our trespass. In just a few steps we reach the wooden bridge to the front door. Cay takes the old key from above the lintel and we step through a tiny lobby into the one-room pine cabin.

While the comforts within are basic they're certainly colourful. White cotton curtains with swirls of orange provide a sunny frame for windows that must often focus on the gloomiest of scenes, while the lanterns and candles set here and there suggest this can transform into a cosy haven on a weather-beaten night.

One of two beds spread with blue counterpanes doubles as a place to lounge by day with the help of a few cushions. A red-brick chimney and black cast-iron stove supply a warming hearth. A pine dresser and trunks and boxes of various sizes provide troves for treasured possessions, while shelves and window ledges have been commandeered for kitchen utensils, teapots, novels, picture books and mounds of pebbles gathered on the seashore. Only the cups printed with Moomin characters throw into question the thorough authenticity.

A handsome wooden desk hogs the best view of an empty horizon (beyond which, the next hunk of land is Estonia). I wonder if this is where Tove worked, but Cay explains it was Tuuti's space, where she would build the three-dimensional tableaux of the Moomin tales. The dining table, covered by a bright yellow oilskin with blue, green and orange flower-shaped splodges, was where Tove likely wrote her last melancholic Moomin stories, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November.

Cay pulls back one of the blue stripy dhurries on the floor to uncover a trap door from which descends a flight of steps. "Before the house was built they blew a hole in the rock. There's a sauna underneath," he says. The subterranean cavern has an external door, too. It leads out to a brackish pool, the island's only water, where Tove and Tuuti bathed. "Tove fell in love with this kind of living," says Cay. "She loved the storms, she loved the sunlight, she loved the rain, everything. This was the perfect place for her."

Although her home was in Helsinki, Tove became an honourary islander in this enclave of the Finland-Swedes, a minority community to which her family belonged. At the Art Factory in the nearby city of Porvoo, a large room has been set aside for a free, temporary exhibition exploring Tove's connection with the landscape. There are 30 or so hangings showing photographs of life on the islands in the 20th century, as well as illustrations of the Moomin characters. Excerpts from Finn Family Moomintroll and passages from The Summer Book and her semi-autobiographical Sculptor's Daughter are placed on lecterns. Original editions of her books and artefacts such as the key to the Glosholm lighthouse are displayed. At the centre of the room is Victoria, the wooden boat that gave Tove and Tuuti a lifeline to civilisation.

Tove and the Archipelago, which runs until 30 August, is part of an EU project to keep the culture of this coast alive, Annika Weckman, one of the curators, tells me. "We wanted to celebrate Tove, because she best described the region. The historic pictures we are showing reflect the changes – like the scene of the boat arriving in the archipelago from Helsinki, once the main way to get here. We've had people come in who remember seeing the Janssons on board."

Finland has no shortage of Tove Jansson attractions. The Moomin Museum in Tampere offers an in-depth appreciation of Tove and Tuuti's work. At Naantali, near Turku, a small island has been transformed into Moominworld, a theme park. In Helsinki, Tove's trail is easy to trace, from the house where she grew up, at 4 Luotsikatu, to the studio, at 1 Ullanlinnankatu, that she called home from 1944 until her death in 2001. On Esplanadi, the promenade to the port, there are two bronze sculptures by her father, Viktor, for which she posed – in the fountain Vattennymfer/Lek II, Tove was the model for the larger mermaid.

At Helsinki's Ateneum Art Museum there's a major exhibition of Tove's work (until 7 September). Two rooms are dedicated to the evolution of the Moomins, from scary black trolls with red eyes to the familiar gentle, white, rotund souls reminiscent of hippos – the joyous, hospitable life-affirmers at the heart of a complex, often neurotic friendship circle cast adrift in a world as unpredictable as the first half of the 20th century.

The sophisticated themes that underpin the Moomins are reflected in Tove's "adult" work. As I tour the exhibition with my guide, Ari Kovero, Tove's quest to be recognised as a serious artist becomes clear through her surrealist, modernist and even abstract paintings and murals, and forthright anti-war cartoons for the satirical magazine Garm.

Most surprising are the paintings depicting scenes from the South Pacific, clearly influenced by Gauguin. "She had this desire to get far, far away," says Ari. "She wrote to the governor of the Tonga islands to ask if she could come and start an artists' colony. But the proposal was politely declined." Who knows what other world Tove might have created far from her Baltic sanctuary.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Kate Simon was a guest of Visit Finland (visitfinland.com), The Travel Experience (00 358 9 622 9810; travel-experience.net) and Finnair (0870 241 4411; finnair.com) which offers return flights from Heathrow or Manchester to Helsinki from £140. Helsinki is also served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com).

Visiting there

Art Factory (00 358 10 231 8200; taidetehdas.fi).

Ateneum Art Museum (00 358 0294 500 401; ateneum.fi).

Moomin Museum Tampere (00 358 03 5656 6577; muumilaakso.tampere.fi).

Moominworld (00 358 02 511 1111; muumimaailma.fi).

More information

Tove100 (tove100.com).

For information about visiting Klovarhu, contact Pellinge Skargard (pellinge.net).

Visit Porvoo (visitporvoo.fi).

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