We study the free surface of a turbulent flow, in particular the relation between the statistical properties of the wrinkled surface and those of the velocity field beneath it. Channel flow turbulence is generated using an active grid. Through a judicial choice of the stirring protocol the anisotropy of the subsurface turbulence can be controlled. The largest Taylor Reynolds number obtained is Reλ = 258. We characterize the homogeneity and isotropy of the flow and discuss Taylor's frozen turbulence hypothesis, which applies to the subsurface turbulence but not to the surface. The surface gradient field is measured using a novel laser-scanning device. Simultaneously, the velocity field in planes just below the surface is measured using particle image velocimetry (PIV). Several intuitively appealing relations between the surface gradient field and functionals of the subsurface velocity field are tested. For an irregular flow shed off a vertical cylinder, we find that surface indentations are strongly correlated with both vortical and strain events in the velocity field. For fully developed turbulence this correlation is dramatically reduced. This is because the large eddies of the subsurface turbulent flow excite random capillary–gravity waves that travel in all directions across the surface. Therefore, the turbulent surface has dynamics of its own. Nonetheless, it does inherit both the integral scale, which determines the predominant wavelength of the capillary–gravity surface waves, and the (an)isotropy from the subsurface turbulence. The kinematical aspects of the surface–turbulence connection are illustrated by a simple model in which the surface is described in terms of waves originating from Gaussian wave sources that are randomly sprinkled on the moving surface.