In 1954 Hepworth's friend Margaret Gardiner took the sculptor to Greece in the hope of lifting her depression that followed the death of her son, Paul, killed while flying for the R.A.F. in Malaya. Her notes and reminiscences demonstrate the excitement generated by the Greek landscape, its ancient sites and sculptural artefacts. Around the same time Gardiner arranged for Hepworth to be sent from Nigeria a sample of the hardwood guarea. Shortly after the sculptor's return from Greece, seventeen tons of timber arrived at Tilbury Docks. Cut into logs weighing up to 2 tons, this was transported to St Ives and then tortuously manhandled through the streets to Hepworth's studio. There she turned these enormous logs, up to four feet in diameter and believed to be 1,500 years old, into her most monumental carvings. Hepworth always preferred harder materials and delighted in the carving of guarea. It was, she later recalled, 'the most beautiful, hard, lovely warm timber ... I was never happier'. This was an experience that was both physical and sensual. 'I have tunnelled right through the 48 inches', she reported, 'and daylight gleams within it ... When I have finished perhaps I shall be able to get inside it'. Gradually the timber's 'savage quality of smell' ceased to be 'overpowering' and became 'more gentle and amenable' (see C. Stephens (ed.), Exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth Centenary, London, 2003, p. 79).
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens discuss this work in the context of other contemporary sculptures, 'the combination of individual works to produce a further conglomerate piece was not unprecedented: in 1956 she had shown her Reclining Figure I (Zennor) (BH 204) [Anonymous sale, Christie's, London; 23 June 1986, lot 59, private collection] and Reclining Figure II (BH 205), [the present lot] both 1955-6, within the hollowed spaces of Oval Form (Penwith Landscape) 1955-6 (BH 203) [Marlborough Gallery, New York] as Three Forms: The Seasons 1956. She would subsequently return to the setting of small elements within an enfolding larger form with stone pieces such as Oval with Two Forms 1971. In fact, the concept first appeared in her work in a number of sculptures like Figure (Mother and Child) 1933, and the maternal theme, or a related allusion to nesting, may be thought to run through all such pieces' (see M. Gale and C. Stephens, loc. cit.).
Philip James, the original owner of Reclining Figure II, was a friend of Hepworth and other St Ives artists. He was Director of Art for C.E.M.A. (The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) which subsequently became the Arts Council, between 1942 and 1958. Prior to this, he had been Keeper of the Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum between 1936 and 1939. The present piece was probably a gift from the sculptor.